Tuesday, August 10, 2010

How It Works: Oil Formation And Why It's So Important

It seems that I'm stuck at oil for a while there is so much about it to cover. Probably what most people are asking themselves when they see gas prices go up is : "Where does oil come from?" OK, to be absolutely truthful they probably yell : "Why the hell did the price go up again?!" This applies to all people around the globe especially Americans who guzzle oil like they do soft drinks. All over the world oil prices are rising and we can do nothing to stop it. Most of the oil available commercially is found in Middle Eastern countries where civil wars and terror have shifted the benefit of such a resource to a precious few. Some oil is already being extracted in Alaska as well as the Atlantic Ocean though this is not enough to satisfy the consumer demand of even the United States much less Europe. Oil has been fought over in many wars and will not be forgotten in future international conflicts, an example being the Gulf War and Desert Storm.

"Crude oil (petroleum) forms when carbon-rich organisms die and get compressed within an oxygen-starved environment over millions of years"
The official explanation of how oil is formed. Probably the most important thing that we need to remind ourselves from this statement is "over millions of years". At the rate which we are currently consuming oil-based products scientists estimate that they will run out in the next 60-80 years. Although this an opinion of only a few since new sources of oil are being discovered around the globe everyday. I'd estimate the real value at around 200 years even if our consumption increases exponentially. We just need to dig deep enough. Of course coal and natural gas are two other polluting substitutes there are not so efficient in their exothermic reactions. Petrol is composed from 83% carbon, 12% hydrogen  as well as from many other elements though in much smaller amounts. This makes oil a hydrocarbon meaning it can be burnt to release energy in the form of heat which can heat water to turn turbines generating electricity.

 Under the seabed plankton and other dead organisms are compressed into sediment under extreme pressure. After a large number of complex chemical reactions the lighter molecules form natural gas and the heavier ones: liquid petroleum.This oil is then extracted and refined for use in generators and vehicles. Of course a much complex process is involved in the making of petroleum but in this post I'm just covering the basics. Trust me when I say that nothing is more important in the modern era than oil. Many international powers such as Russia and China are emerging as the highest producers of oil even larger than Middle Eastern countries. We shall see what the future holds in store for us in terms of power production. We shall see.

Its off to the States for me tomorrow! I will try to procure some interesting magazines so that I may extend my ring of scientific knowledge even further.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

How It Works: Cleaning up an Oil Spill (Deepwater Horizon)

Whatever way we think about it oil is damaging to the environment. Sure when its underground, buried beneath thousands of layers of sand, nature tends to ignore it but when it is above the earth things get a little shaky. The largest companies in the world have made their fortune through the extraction and refining of petroleum ( from the latin petra rock + oleum oil). This viscous liquid is considered to be the most important natural element in the post-modern era. Without it electricity production would fall by 70%, petrol for vehicles would be virtually inexistent and we would fall back to the 19th century in terms of power consumption. Nuclear power is thought to be the only substitute power source that might be able to, in a few decades, compete with petroleum. What we are here to discuss however is the careless way with which these firms treat our precious resource. Although each company clearly states that it has imposed severe rules over the handling of oil over land and sea, disasters of the largest proportions have continuously happened in recent industrial history. 

During the Gulf War up to 460 million gallons of oil were deliberately spilled by the Iraqi army in Kuwait. In 1989 around 40 thousand tonnes were lost as the Exxon Valdez hit the coast of Alaska. And of course the most recent one, Deepwater Horizon. It is the largest accidental oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. On the 20th of April 2010 a massive explosion was seen on the oil rig and a quick response team was sent to assess the damage. Over the course of the next few months the oil slick spread to cover an area of 2,500 square miles. The company responsible for it , BP, was rightly persecuted and are still today attempting to contain the damage. A number of methods used to reverse the spill include: containment and skimming (Booms, vacuum skimmers and curtains), sorbents that do not dissolve in water and can be scooped up mechanicaly and biological agents (natural biodegradation of oil).
 "Flammable toxic oil can gush out and combust, resulting in a massive fireball" 

The effects of such a spill are both widespread and terrifying to say the least. The tourist industry in the affected area will fall dramatically, the impact on wildlife will be catastrophic and the economical disadvantages will tear the commercial world apart due to higher prices and low availability of oil. BP will have to work as hard as they can to get such a spill under control if they ever want to regain the trust of their shareholders and customers. And of course to return the environment to its original state - oil-free.

 UPDATE: As I glanced through this post a second time I realized that I have fallen pray to what many journalists and speakers called bias. I completely disregarded another fundamental article about this matter. I don't remember from which mag it was but it went against everything that I have stated in this post. Supposedly almost no environmental damage was caused upon the Mexican Gulf. I will have to remember to be more thorough next time.


On a side note, I have just ended my sojourn to Poland where I spent a marvelous time with my friends and family. This mag that I brought in Frankfurt airport is one of my best so far. Count on more posts from the same mag soon. Some new features have been added to the website and its general performance level has been updated. I will post another entry on Tuesday and then I will depart for another voyage to the United States. So long!