By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Crude oil topped $100 a barrel amidst Russia’s Ukraine invasion. The surge in price stood out in stock markets, Thursday, even as global markets plunged. Oil remains a major fossil fuel used worldwide.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had global effects almost immediately. Economies and stock markets around the world saw ripple effects, with most markets plunging while oil prices skyrocketed. As the day wore on, Americans felt the pinch at the gas pump. Gas prices soared even as President Joe Biden pledged that his administration was taking active steps to bring down costs—and as he urged gas station owners not to use the incident as an opportunity to hike prices.
So what is oil, on the chemical level? In his video series Everyday Engineering: Understanding the Marvels of Daily Life, Dr. Stephen Ressler, Professor Emeritus from the United States Military Academy at West Point, explains how oil impacts our daily lives and how it’s detected for drilling.
What Exactly Is Petroleum?
“The world consumes over 90 million barrels of [oil] every day,” Dr. Ressler said. “Even though oil fuels only about 1% of U.S. electric power generation, it constitutes 40% of our total energy consumption. Petroleum products power our automobiles and aircraft; they heat our homes, cook our meals, and lubricate our machines—they serve as a base for countless industrial chemicals and plastics.”
We depend on oil for our standard of living. We likely will for some time. This naturally occurring stew of hydrocarbons plays a major role in our lives, whether we like it or not.
“Hydrocarbons [are] organic compounds consisting entirely of hydrogen and carbon atoms,” Dr. Ressler said. “A major component of the crude oil we pump from the ground is a family of hydrocarbon molecules we call alkanes. An alkane is a chain of carbon atoms, each bonded to two hydrogen atoms—except at the ends of the chain, where each carbon is bonded to three hydrogens.”
Methane, or CH4, is the simplest and lightest alkane there is. It’s the principal component of natural gas, with one carbon and four hydrogen atoms. By adding more carbon to the chain, we get ethane, propane, and butane. At room temperature, all of them are gases, but each heavier molecule has a higher boiling point and is easier to liquify by pressuring the gas.
“That’s why we can buy liquid propane in metal bottles at the local hardware store, but we can’t buy liquid natural gas,” Dr. Ressler said.
“This substance originated as marine organisms—primarily plankton and algae—that accumulated on the sea 60 to 100 million years ago,” Dr. Ressler said. “Over time, these organisms decomposed into compounds of carbon and hydrogen, which were embedded within sedimentary layers that eventually hardened into fine-grained shale called source rock.”
According to Dr. Ressler, as the source rock experienced greater heat and pressure, the organic material within it got distilled into petroleum and natural gas. This accumulated in more porous strata of limestone and sandstone called “reservoir rock,” where it was retained, as geological movements of Earth’s crust sandwiched it between layers of caprock like granite or marble.
“Armed with a deep understanding of this formation process, geologists use a variety of technologies to identify possible deposits of oil and natural gas deep underground,” Dr. Ressler said. “These include satellite imagery to identify geologic conditions favorable for oil deposits, [and] seismology, which involves directing shockwaves downward into Earth’s crust and measuring their reflections to identify differences in the density of underground strata.”
It also includes gravity meters, which identify minute variations in Earth’s gravitational field; magnetometers, which detect variations in Earth’s magnetic field; and “electronic sniffers,” which detect faint traces of hydrocarbons emanating from the Earth.
Then the well-known extraction process begins.