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Petroleum Engineering Overview - The Field - Preparation - Day In The Life - Earnings - Employment - Career Path Forecast - Professional Organizations

The Field
The word petroleum generally refers to crude oil or the refined products obtained from the processing of crude oil (gasoline, diesel fuel, heating oil, etc.) We find petroleum products in every area of our lives. They are easily recognized in the gasoline we use to fuel our cars and the heating oil we use to warm our homes. Less obvious are the uses of petroleum-based components of plastics, medicines, food items, and a host of other products.

Gasoline is made from crude oil, which was formed from the remains of tiny aquatic plants and animals that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. These remains were covered with layers of sediment, which over millions of years of extreme pressure and high temperatures became the mix of liquid hydrocarbons (an organic chemical compound of hydrogen and carbon) that we know as crude oil. Because crude oil is made up of a mixture of hydrocarbons, refineries break down these hydrocarbons into different products. These "refined products" include gasoline, diesel fuel, heating oil, jet fuel, liquefied petroleum gases, residual fuel oil, and many other products.

Refining Basics
The most basic refining process is aimed at separating the crude oil into its various components. Crude oil is heated and put into a still -- a distillation column -- and different hydrocarbon components boil off and can be recovered as they condense at different temperatures. Additional processing follows crude distillation, changing the molecular structure of the input with chemical reactions, some through variations in heat and pressure, some in the presence of a catalyst, a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without being consumed in the reaction.

The characteristics of the gasoline produced depend on the type of crude oil that is used and the setup of the refinery at which it is produced. Gasoline characteristics are also impacted by other ingredients that may be blended into it, such as ethanol. The performance of the gasoline must meet industry standards and environmental regulations that may depend on location.

After crude oil is refined into gasoline and other petroleum products, the products must be distributed to consumers. The majority of gasoline is shipped first by pipeline to storage terminals near consuming areas, and then loaded into trucks for delivery to individual gas stations. Gasoline and other products are sent through shared pipelines in "batches." Since these batches are not physically separated in the pipeline, some mixing or "commingling" of products occurs. This is why the quality of the gasoline and other products must be tested as they enter and leave the pipeline to make sure they meet appropriate specifications. Whenever the product fails to meet local, state, or federal product specifications, it must be removed and trucked back to a refinery for further processing.

After shipment through the pipeline, gasoline is typically held in bulk storage terminals that often service many companies. At these terminals the gasoline is loaded into tanker trucks destined for various retail gas stations. The tanks in these trucks, which can typically hold up to 10,000 gallons, usually have several compartments, enabling them to transport different grades of gasoline or petroleum products. The truck tank is where the special additive packages of gasoline retailers get blended into the gasoline to differentiate one brand from another. In some areas, ethanol may be "splash blended" in the tanker to meet environmental requirements. When the tanker truck reaches a gas station, the truck operator unloads each grade of gasoline into the appropriate underground tanks at the station.

Note: Some resources in this section are provided by the Energy Information Administration.

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