Apr 03, 2008 | Posted in Essays, Progress

Since the early days of the petroleum industry in the 1860’s through present times, a nearly countless list of distinct petroleum derived products have been discovered or created by man. The list was a short one in the latter nineteenth century consisting primarily of naphtha, kerosene, lubricating oil, wax, petrolatum, railroad grease, gasoline and fuel oil.
Naphtha was initially thought of as a dangerous, unwanted light fraction that limited the production of the less volatile kerosene. Irresponsible early refiners would extend their cuts up into the naphtha range to increase kerosene production. Many early oil lamps exploded as a result. Naphtha was recognized as an excellent solvent for rubber and vegetable oils. When the manufactured gas industry in urban areas was established in the 1880’s, naphtha was widely used to enrich the manufactured gas. Manufactured gas was used as a fuel for gas lamps.
Kerosene, a light fraction from distillation just heavier or below the naphtha range, was the primary product in value and volume of the nineteenth century oil industry. Kerosene’s principal use was as illuminating oil in lamps. Kerosene also found a market as a fuel for the large stationary, internal combustion engines increasingly used by industry at the end of the century.
Lubricating Oil, produced by refining the intermediate and heavy fractions below the kerosene range, was used in all manner of moving mechanical applications to reduce friction and heat. In terms of volume, lubricating oil represented less than five percent of the products from petroleum, but it was the most valuable. Nearly all lubricating oils came from Pennsylvania and West Virginia oil because Appalachian crude contained negligible amounts of sulfur and asphalt.
Wax was a byproduct produced when refining Pennsylvania and West Virginia oil to manufacture lubricating oil. Wax in the nineteenth century was obtained by chilling the lubricating oil stock by winter storage or the use of icehouses. In contrast, liquid propane was mixed in the twentieth century with the lubricating oil stock and when it vaporized acted as a powerful refrigerant. Centrifuging and solvents also were widely used to separate the wax in the twentieth century. Petroleum wax was used in the nineteenth century to make candles, matches, chewing gum for “the lady’s sewing circles”, as a preservative for jellies and jams and other food stuffs, in confections and as a method of waterproofing cloth as well as sizing cloth. Wax was used widely on leather goods of all sorts, from saddles to boots, to preserve and enhance the appearance of the leather article. Wax was also used as an insulator around telegraph lines and early electrical installations.
Petrolatum, or petroleum jelly, was produced by distilling in a vacuum the intermediate and heavy residual Pennsylvania fractions from which the naphthas, kerosene and lubricating oil had been removed. The resultant distillate was filtered by passing it through animal charcoal. The Chesebrough Manufacturing Co. began marketing white petrolatum in 1871 under the trade name “Vaseline”. Petrolatum was afterwards used widely in lotions, salves, pomades, ointments and a variety of preparations prepared by pharmacists.
Railroad grease was produced from unusually heavy Pennsylvania crudes with relatively few volatile compounds. After being steamed to eliminate any volatility, this unique heavy crude was mixed with a lead soap to create excellent lubricating grease for heavy applications on railroads.
Gasoline was the lightest significant fraction produced from crude oil distillation that was recognized as a commercial product with a market in the nineteenth century. In the earliest years, gasoline was considered an unwanted, dangerous fraction that was often just run off on the nearby ground. Like naphtha, gasoline was used to enrich manufactured gas and as a fuel for early gasoline lamps. Due to its higher volatility, gasoline was a better fuel than kerosene for the large stationary internal combustion engines used by industry in the last decades of the nineteenth century. This use suggested the immense potential of this product in the smaller engines in motor vehicles in the twentieth century.
Fuel Oil was originally used in large amounts as industrial boiler fuel in Toledo and Chicago. Finding it could not initially refine acceptable kerosene from its extensive Lima crude oil reserves, in the late 1880’s Standard Oil reduced its Lima crude to eliminate the volatile fractions and piped it to Chicago for use as boiler fuel. In some ways, this was a desperate measure to deal with the disappointing character of Lima crude. The heavy, asphaltic crude oil found in California, Kansas and the Gulf Coast was used in a similar fashion. Fuel oil was widely used to fire the boilers of railroad locomotives and marine boilers as well. The farther away from the anthracite mines of Pennsylvania, the more fuel oil was used in boilers.

Twentieth Century and Later
The variety of products from petroleum increased dramatically in the twentieth century. New uses and markets concurrent with an expanding industrial and technical base and breakthroughs in refining processes and chemistry drove the discovery of petroleum products. Of course the products used in the nineteenth century continued to have a market. We have chosen to present this expanded list of products by considering their weight, or relative gravities, beginning with the lightest fractions, the very volatile gases, and proceeding down through the liquid fractions finishing with the heaviest asphalt and coke residium.
A Gas recovered from the very light vapors formed when cracking oil in a vacuum was called acetylene and used for oxy-acetylene welding and cutting of steel. Other light gases such as propane and butane were formed and recovered. These gases were bottled as liquids under pressure and used for cooking, heating and refrigeration. These light gases were also recovered from natural gas by compression.
Petrochemicals were derived from the very light petroleum gases produced when cracking. Among the earliest of such petrochemicals was synthetic toluene. Synthetic toluene was produced during the First World War to augment the supply of toluene gathered from the coke oven gas generated when producing metallurgical coke for the iron and steel industry. Toluene was the “T” inTNT, the explosive.
Isopropyl alcohol was synthesized from propylene and other constituents found in cracked still gas. During World War I, a method to create acetone from isopropyl alcohol by catalytic oxidation was perfected. At the time, the acetone was in great demand as an anti-knock agent used in military aircraft engines. During Prohibition, isopropyl alcohol found new uses as a replacement for strictly regulated ethyl alcohol. Isopropyl alcohol was used as a solvent for resin and gum, as a preservative, a dehydrating agent and in the making of shampoo, perfume and cosmetics. The big markets for isopropyl alcohol afterWWI were as solvents in the textile and rubber industries and as antifreeze in automobile and truck engines. This propylene-derived product became so universal just about everybody had a glass bottle of it in their medicine cabinet and metal tin of it in their garage. Isopropyl alcohol evaporated at low temperatures, however. A new antifreeze product, one that didn’t rapidly evaporate, came on the market in 1926 called Prestone. Prestone was ethylene glycol produced from natural gas by Union Carbide in Charleston, West Virginia. The petrochemical industry moved forward with developments in both oil and natural gas, often together.
Standard Oil of New Jersey learned how to produce butyl alcohol from light refinery gas in the latter 1920’s. Standard of New Jersey then perfected a method of deriving ketones from butyl alcohol. This expanded the supply of methyl ethyl ketones (M.E.K.) used widely in later years by the refining industry as a potent solvent for wax removal.
Other chemical building blocks derived from light refinery gas to be used by the growing petrochemical industry included styrene, butadiene, synthetic rubber, resins, nitro paraffins, glycerine, chlorinated hydrocarbons, esters, amines and plastics. An infinite variety of plastic materials were formed by heat-setting polymers of different organic compounds. Plastic furniture, milk cartons and food containers are how we now define our culture. Vinyl products derived from ethylene recovered from refinery gas as well as coke oven gas became common. In the twenty-first century, long-playing and 45RPM records are forgotten relics from our musical past. There was a time they were as common as today’s CD’s. What they have in common is their vinyl base. Vinyl siding and window surrounds have become common building materials.
Carbon Black for paints, rubber and ink is manufactured by burning refinery gas. Carbon black is also produced from natural gas.
Gasoline is the lightest liquid recovered from the nondestructive fractional distillation of crude oil. The yield from a barrel of crude was substantially improved by subsequent cracking at higher temperatures of heavier fractions in the naphtha range and below. Thermal cracking was replaced by catalytic cracking in the 1940’s. Once use of automobiles mushroomed, we have never stopped trying to get more gasoline out of a barrel of crude.
Naphtha in the twentieth century continued to find use as a solvent for vegetable oil, lacquer, paint and rubber. It found new uses in dry cleaning and in printing. Naphtha-derived fuel was used as aviation fuel in reciprocating engines.
Kerosene and similar refined distillates in its gravity range found new uses prior to World War II as farm tractor fuel as well as stove fuel, cattle spray and insect spray. Distillates in this range today are largely used as jet fuel for aircraft.
Gas Oil is a fraction slightly heavier and just below kerosene. These economically essential distillates are used as diesel fuel for railroad locomotives, heavy trucks and buses, construction equipment and farm tractors. Home heating fuel for warmth and industrial fuel are also derived from gas oil.
Wax derived from the manufacture of lubricating oils found new uses as wax paper, wax milk cartons and the like. In time, these uses were challenged by plastic. Wax continued to have wide use in food preparation, preservation and confections. As in the nineteenth century, wax-coated matches and candles continue to be household staples.
White oil is an intermediate fraction just below gas oil used for a variety of uses including hydraulic oil that is critical to control of all manner of equipment from the largest commercial aircraft to the heaviest piece of construction equipment. This distillate also found application as an insulating oil in transformers located at every substation distributing electricity in the country. Other uses include medicinal oil, salves and creams, baker’s oil, and textile oil.
Petrolatum continues to find widespread applications as petroleum jelly, cosmetics such as lipstick and eye products, ointments, rust preventers and lubricants.
Lubricating Oils. The list of the kinds of lubricating oils in use would be encyclopedic. In general the list includes hydraulic oils, printing ink oils, railroad oils, marine oils, valve oils, transmission oils, turbine oils, aviation oils, steam cylinder oils, compressor oils, spindle oils, machining oils and diesel oils.
Grease is the heavy weight lubricant used as cup grease, switch grease, automobile and truck grease, industrial grease and cable grease. We can’t live without the sticky, gooey stuff.
Residual Fuel. Residual fuels are the heavy fuel oils derived from the heaviest crude oil fractions. They often require some heating to be used and employ pressurized oil burners to fire marine boilers, railroad locomotives and industrial boilers to power steam engines and turbines. These heavy fuel oils are not glamorous oil celebrities but provide for a great deal of the nation’s energy requirements.
Asphalt. Refined asphalt was first produced in significant amounts in the first decade of the twentieth century. It is primarily used in road construction. Another major use has been the manufacture of roof shingles and roofing paper.
Petroleum Coke is what remains at the bottom of the still. Virtually pure carbon, it has found value uses as material for carbon brushes and the large carbon electrodes used in electric arc smelting furnaces.

by Neil McElwee, 2008


Williamson and Daum, The American Petroleum Industry, The Age of Illumination, 1859-1899, Evanston, 1959

Williamson, Andreano, Daum and Klose, The American Petroleum Industry, The Age of Energy, 1899-1959, Evanston, 1963.