Thursday, June 28, 2007

Where Does Gasoline Come From?

Drivers know the basic procedure for keeping their vehicles running: fill up with gasoline, drive, repeat. Most drivers know this routine so well that it is second nature, without stopping to wonder where the gasoline that seems so essential to their lifestyles originates. You have probably heard the buzz about the need to conserve petroleum based products due to their limited availability for future generations. This is because petroleum based products such as oil and natural gas are nonrenewable resources that take millions of years to produce naturally, and known reserves fall considerably short of anticipated future demand. The gasoline that powers most vehicles has its origin in ancient marine life that died millions of years ago, but how so?

Oil and natural gas, generically classified together as petroleum products, are found deep within the earth in many parts of the world. What surprises many people is that oil is actually formed from the remains of small organisms, such as algae, plankton and vegetation which lived tens or hundreds of millions of years ago in oceans and lakes. When such organisms passed away, their remains settled on the bottoms of the oceans or lakes, and were covered by mud and sediment. The presence of oxygen with time helps organisms decay, but the small percentage of these organisms that would go on to form oil became compressed into oxygen deprived mud and rock. Over thousands of years, the pressure and heat exerted on the original layer became increasingly intense, eventually converting the organic matter into deposits of petroleum.

Such petroleum deposits are extracted by humans to be processed for use across many industries. One substantial use for such natural oil is the production of gasoline for automobiles with internal-combustion engines. But the oil extracted from underground, called crude oil, must be refined through the process of fractional distillation before it is ready to power an engine. Fractional distillation involves heating oil in a controlled environment in order to separate different kinds of hydrocarbons as their characteristic boiling points are reached. Through this process, chemists obtain the substance we know as gasoline.

Internal combustion engines, those utilized to power most vehicles, get mechanical energy through the burning of chemical energy in a combustion chamber. Such fuel combustion activates a piston contained within a cylinder, turning a crankshaft that turns the wheels of the car using a chain or drive shaft.

Today, measures are being taken to reduce consumer reliance on natural oil due to limited supply as well as widely held environmental concerns.

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