This era in history may be remembered as the "Peak Age", a brief time when nearly all materials used to power and create our society reach the maximum extraction and production potential. Past this point, all of these resources become increasingly difficult to extract until they are no longer economically viable resources to be using. There are hundreds of examples of resources, currently embedded in our industrial society, which have reached their peak in the 50 years surrounding 2010, but the one which will most impact our society is petroleum.

The goal of living for 100 days without oil is to understand the extent of our dependance on oil in American society today. Specifically, how it will affect my life, as a 25 year-oil living in Minneapolis, MN. By using myself as a metric I can take a close and conscious look at where oil dependance occurs in all aspects of our daily lives : How we transport ourselves from one place to another, what we eat, how much waste we create, how water is cleaned and transported, where oil is used as; an energy resource, in conventional medicine and for hygiene and how oil affects how we entertain ourselves and communicate with others. By demonstrating how someone would be forced to live without using any oil resources, outlining both what the sacrifices will be as well as the benefits, we can can identify the many systems which will have to be re-designed in a world without cheap oil, and explore a new way of living in which we live in an energy balance.

(At the bottom of this page is a link to my version of a flow diagram of 'Where Petroleum Exists in Our Daily Lives' (using information from the Energy Information Administration-Annual Energy Review 2008 fig 5.0 Petroleum flow) click and zoom to enlarge)

Monday, October 18, 2010


14 October 2010

I watched a great documentary on how different oil products are made and the extent of these products throughout our lives: History Secrets: Secrets of Oil last night and this is what I found!:

To make all petroleum products it must be refined in different ways from crude oil (the state it is in when it comes out of the ground).  Oil refining has four stages:
2_hydro cleaning

Crude oil can be separated into mixtures with various hydrocarbon makeups to make all kinds of different products.  This is done by boiling crude oil in a huge, tall tower at temperatures of up to 700F.  As the crude boils, different hydrocarbon molecules within the crude begin to vaporise at different temperatures, thus separating it into various vapors.  Each vapor rises to a certain point in the tower and as it cools it condenses and is drawn off at specific levels depending on the weight of the molecules.  For example, the lightest gasses which are used to make aspirin (yes, aspirin is a petro-product) rise to the highest level of the tower.  The heaviest molecules, those used to make gasoline and jet fuels, sink to the bottom and are drawn off by pipes at that level.  Asphalt is the 'bottom of the barrel' product, as it is the heaviest and collects at the bottom of the tower.  Here is a diagram of what the breakdown of products in a barrel of oil is (to be expanded later):

The second step in refining is 'hydrocleaning'.  This is the first stage of 'filtering' the different products.  Each product that comes out of the tower has different requirements for refining and goes through a slightly different process of cleaning and filtering.  In the hydro cleaning phase, a large amount of sulfur is removed from the products.  This sulfur is then sold as agricultural fertilizers, to make tires and to make explosives.

Third, during the 'cracking' stage, products are altered molecularly to created new products. 

Lastly, different products are blended together with others to create the finished product.

As you can see, petro-products must go through quite a bit of refining to be manufactured into the products we buy every day.  When plastics were first being made they were actually quite expensive.  However, as is the trend in economics, as they grew to a massive manufacturing scale, the price decreased to the extremely inexpensive point it is at today.  Oil has some things going for it.  Because it is a liquid (in most forms) it is easily transportable.  It is easily manipulated in processes such as 'thermoforming' (heating and pulling over a mold). 

Some examples of products we use every day which are made from oil:

Lubricants-One of the most important oil products.  Used in almost anything with moving parts (watches and motors).  Petroleum based lubricants do an excellent job of reducing the heat created when two objects moving together creating a thin cooling film.

Water pipes-Once made of copper, today 66% of water pipes are made from PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)

Asphalt- Four out of every five homes have asphalt shingles today.  While asphalt can be found naturally in tar pits, today almost all of it comes from oil refining.  Of the asphalt which is refined from oil: 15% is used for roofing, less than 15% is used for water resistant structures (sea walls, boats) and the remaining is used to cover roads.  On that note, of the 4 million miles of roads in the United States, 94% are covered in asphalt.  Asphalt fills in cracks and binds the aggregates of roads together.  "American roads contain more than 19,000 square miles of asphalt."

Mineral Oil- Also known as baby oil, this is a petroleum product we are probably all familiar with.  Here are some applications of mineral oil:
_Rubbed on the skin of infants for diaper rash and used as a lubricant during child birth
_Taken orally as a lubricating laxative
_Livestock vaccines
_Common ingredient in baby lotions, ointments and cosmetics.  Used in mascara to prevent brittleness and in lipstick.
_As a transformer oil in industrial/mechanical capacities
_As a preservative in shoe polishes, wood
_Used on cooking utensils, cutting boards, cookware and bake ware to prevent food from sticking
_Lava lamps
_Principle fuel in gel-candles
_Fog and Haze machines
_As a pesticide
_The basis for most automotive engine oils

The most significant petroleum product, however, is plastic.  Plastics are made from monomers and converted into a 'feedstock' of tiny pellets which are melted and mixed with other products to create different plastics.  There are seven basic feedstocks:

We ingest it, rub it on our bodies, transport our water through it, spread it on our food crops, lubricate our engines with it and drive on it.  Petroleum really is everywhere. 


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