Saudi Arabia is going to cut oil production and although they say they are not doing it for political reasons, we can see our politicians here vocalizing what could be their wishes such as finishing the Keystone pipeline which would bring crude to their refinery in Texas. It’s hard to imagine that some US pols even speak against electric cars made in the USA. Or maybe not. If we all switched immediately to electric vehicles powered by wind and solar energy, would we still need oil? The answer is, yes.
Fuel oil and gas are not the only petroleum based products. The paving and roofing material asphalt is a complicated mixture of large hydrocarbons and plenty of sulfur, vanadium, and nickel impurities and is petroleum baed. Tar can be made from coal or found naturally, as in the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles where fossils of mammoths and dire wolves have been found. But tar and asphalt are not the only additional uses for petroleum.
Petroleum is the starting material for most of our plastics and synthetic materials, everything from fibers to pharmaceuticals, starts out as a form of oil.
Hydrocarbons can be chains or rings, and are distinguished by their composition-molecules made from just two elements, carbon and hydrogen. These materials can be light and flammable like naptha and gasoline or heavier as with asphalt and tar. Although they are useful in their own right, organic chemistry can step in and add elements to the hydrocarbons to make them into entirely new compounds. But they are the necessary beginning–the feed stock so to speak.
Here is an example of making something simple, acetic acid, as found in vinegar. Acetic acid contains oxygen in addition to hydrogen and carbon. It can be produced by fermentation as in this reaction where the acetic acid is bolded.
2 CO2 + 4 H2 → CH3COOH + 2 H2O.
It can also be made from alcohol, something you don’t want happening to your wine, for example, in this reaction starting with ethanol (as in wine) and adding oxygen naturally. It’s why you need to carefully control the amount of oxygen when wine making.
C2H5OH + O2 → CH3COOH + H2O
With the proper catalysts, acetic acid can easily be made from oil, for example as in this reaction:
2 C4H10 + 5 O2 → 4 CH3CO2H + 2 H2O
Why would anyone do this when acetic acid can be made from fermentation? We need a lot of it. Non-food acetic acid has been produced industrially since the 1960s and accounts for 90% of the usage world-wide. Over 5 million tons are produced each year. It’s a high demand chemical used to make coatings, paints, inks, and plastics such as PET. It’s one example of how we use chemical feed stock petroleum to make products we use every day.
Twenty percent of each barrel of oil is used as a chemical feed stock and when oil goes up in price, so does anything made from oil.
There are biological ways to make synthetic materials as discussed here and in my novel Lost in Waste. But as long as there is plenty of oil available, it has a long history of being used as a fuel and a feed stock and this isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Kicking the world’s oil addiction won’t be easy, unless we want to go back to life as it was 100 years ago. And we all know how some politicians love plastic bags. Fortunately, crude oil prices are still much lower than their highest point in 2008 so don’t despair. We will have plenty of low cost cigarette butts other plastics in the near future.