The physical properties and exact chemical composition of crude oil varies from one locality to another. The different hydrocarbon components of petroleum are dissolved natural gas, gasoline, benzine, naphtha, kerosene, diesel fuel and light heating oils, heavy heating oils, and finally tars of various weights (see tar and pitch). The crude oil is usually sent from a well to a refinery in pipelines (see under pipe) or tanker ships.
The hydrocarbon components are separated from each other by various refining processes. In a process called fractional distillation petroleum is heated and sent into a tower. The vapors of the different components condense on collectors at different heights in the tower. The separated fractions are then drawn from the collectors and further processed into various petroleum products. One of the many products of crude oil is a light substance with little color that is rich in gasoline. Another is a black tarry substance that is rich in asphalt.
As the lighter fractions, especially gasoline, are in the greatest demand, so-called cracking processes have been developed in which heat, pressure, and certain catalysts are used to break up the large molecules of heavy hydrocarbons into small molecules of light hydrocarbons. Some of the heavier fractions find eventual use as lubricating oils, paraffins, and highly refined medicinal substances such as petrolatum.
See also petrochemicals.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.