What If Oil Refineries were not invented?

Crude oil is never extracted pure from wells. It is always mixed with hundreds of different genres of hydrocarbons which should be separated to get useful substances. Thanks to Oil Refineries, the separation process has become easy and quick. But, how what would this process be like if refineries were not invented?

Substances such as gasoline, diesel fuel, heating oils, lubricants, waxes, asphalt and coke are obtained from refined oil. This refined oil originally contains a mixture of hydrocarbon compounds which include nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and small quantities of trace metals. One barrel of crude oil gives the following percent yield: gasoline, 46.7%; fuel oil, 28.6%; jet fuel, 9.1%; petrochemicals, 3.8%; coke, 3.5%; asphalt and road oil, 3.1%; liquefied gases, 2.9%; lubricants, 1.3%; kerosene, 0.9%; and waxes, 0.1%. This then traces the importance of oil refining.

Before the1900s, early attempts to refine crude oil were inefficient; only one barrel of gasoline was yielded from every fifteen barrels of crude oil. The urgent need for more oil refineries was highly illustrated with the booming era of automobiles in 1908. The demand for gasoline was tremendously augmented, while the early refining process was inefficient, as previously mentioned, and unable to satisfy this demand.

In 1913, William Burton, an employee of Standard Oil of Indiana, developed a technique called thermal cracking; a process invented to enhance the efficiency rate of the refining process during that time. This thermal cracking utilizes the heat and pressure application in order to break down heavy hydrocarbons into lighter components. Through this technique, the amount of gasoline produced from a single barrel of crude oil had more than doubled. It was further upgraded when catalysts were added to promote chemical reactions.

The oil industry also witnessed another boost when it was greatly developed to meet military needs. During World War II, new products, such as high-octane fuel for airplanes and raw materials for synthetic rubber were created to fulfill military requirements during that time.

What if advanced oil refineries were not invented? How would the entire world function nowadays without the vital components derived from refined oil, which are affiliated with our daily tasks? Let’s imagine it together…

Most of the products coming from crude oil require processing beyond the refinery, except for two which get out directly; asphalt and waxes. These two products are considered as raw materials because they do not require extra processing. As commonly known, asphalt is classified as the principle material utilized for building roads. In the Egyptian society, there is a common belief that you have to reside in areas where VIPs, Ministers and top officials reside, in order to enjoy well paved roads, as most of Cairo’s streets quite shoddy, to say the least. If we assumed that asphalt was easier to get than many other products, then more roads would be built in suburban areas and more modifications would be made.

Now, moving on to the most interesting part, fuel; it forms the largest group of oil products. They are easily burnt and create large amounts of thermal energy. Petroleum fuels are preferred over other combustible materials such as coal or wood because they are cleaner, easier to store, and easier to transport from one location to another. Almost all of the fuels used for transportation and the majority of the fuels used for heat and electricity come from petroleum products.

Fuel is associated with everything in our daily life routine, so what would happen if oil is not refined and fuel is not extracted? The answer lies in two words; coal and wood. In other words, instead of utilizing fuel to run our cars, we would instead use coal like the good old days. In the morning, before heading to your work, charge your car with one or two packs of coals.

We might even go further back to the early days of the 18th century, when wood was used for heating, cooking… etc. And, as almost all of the fuels used for transportation and the majority of the fuels used for heat and electricity come from petroleum products, wood will be the alternative, despite the pollution it causes.

As mentioned before, the refining process was developed during WWII to meet military demands. Devices like fighting helicopters, how would get the fuel they need or how would weapons be manufactured? Thus, it would be better for fighting countries to either end the war and choose peaceful solutions or depend on their soldiers since there would not be an air force. On a much more optimistic note, however, maybe wars would not be as ghastly and destructive as they currently are. And while weapons prior to the existence and aid of petroleum were still harmful they were by no means as devastating on such massive proportions.

As for the oil industry, factories would probably revert to the oldest and most common way of separating things into various components, known as fractions, which are carried out through using the differences in boiling temperature. This process is called fractional distillation; you basically heat crude oil brining it to a boil, let it vaporize and then condense the vapor.

Needless to say, had the refining process not have been created, life would be a bit harder. Instead of house chores consisting of cooking and cleaning, you can add chopping wood to the list. Instead of individual cars, coal would render mass transportation such as trains, the only viable option for a means of transport. Weaponry would not be as sophisticated, but where has sophistication really gotten us. And as for petroleum products, will just take a moment to imagine life without plastic.

Imagined by Yomna Bassiouni


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