Technology & Physics of Refining Oil

September 1, 2016

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Technology & Physics of Refining Oil

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Are you ready to refine that black gunk into gasoline?

Crude HomogeneousFirst, we need to do some cleaning. Because crude oil was deposited in and migrated through sedimentary rocks, it also contains various impurities that it picked up along the way over millions of years. So the refinery uses a combination of gravity and an electric grid to remove much of the corrosive salts, water and the solids that can foul their refinery equipment.  The electric grid uses the polarity of the water molecules to make them coalesce and drop them out of solution. Cool trick, huh? Now it’s time to heat things up.

After the crude oil is preheated, it goes into a “fractional distillation” tower. Using a combination of heat and pressure, the tower separates and pulls off the different “fractions” of the crude oil that boil off at different boiling point ranges. The process of distillation has actually been around for thousands of years. It’s just in the past few hundred years that it’s been used to refine crude oil.

In essences, it’s similar to the salad dressing in your refrigerator with the heavy fluids settling to the bottom and the lighter ones rising to the top. In their fractional distillation tower, asphalt’s on the bottom. Going up the tower you have separation into diesel fuels, jet fuels, and then up near the top in the “overhead” you’ve got naphtha, which is gasoline.

Distill DressingDespite all the separation, fractional distillation is a pretty basic process that only produces about 20 percent gasoline from the crude feedstock. No worries, you’ll discover later on how they use more physics and chemistry to get an even higher percentage of gasoline during the rest of the refining process. Just think about making things and rearranging them using Legos.

When you’re ready to “distill” more of your knowledge about the physics of refining crude, click on the “Learn More” tab below.  Really, if you ever drive or ride in a car, you should know this interesting science. Also, don’t miss exploring the other videos and lesson activities on our website that complete the rest of the crude oil refining and transportation story.

Plus, take a moment and check out the jazzed petroleum industry careers video on the right and the link to “Careers for Petroleum Engineers” below. Then, click the link of our educational partner here to discover bonus info about refining and transporting crude oil.

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