About the blog: What Things Are Made Of


The United States relies on imports for dozens of commodities in everyday use. Often enough, that reliance is 100%. In this book I aim to provide awareness of the hidden geology and mineralogy behind common things, and to develop an appreciation for the global resource distribution that underpins our society. While concerns about oil import reliance are in the news every day, our needs for other minerals are comparable and are typically unknown even to technologically aware Americans.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

About Oil

The elephant in the room when it comes to resources is oil. What Things Are Made Of has a chapter on transportation, and oil is naturally a big part of it. The oil section of my web site has lots of statistics (if you type oil statistics into Google, I come up ahead of the Energy Information Administration!). Today I simply want to make a bullet list of a few interesting observations about oil. Data are from late 2009.

  • The US gets about half its oil and petroleum products imports from the Western Hemisphere. Canada is our #1 supplier.
  • In addition to crude oil at about 8.5 million barrels per day, the US imports about 1,000,000 barrels per day of gasoline (42 million gallons per day) and 2,000,000 barrels per day of other refined petroleum products such as diesel fuel.
  • Only 1.2 gallons per 44 gallons of product made from a 42-gallon barrel of crude oil goes to make chemical feedstocks for plastics, paint, synthetic rubber, and petrochemicals. That’s not quite 3%. (While there may be good reasons for using less plastic, saving enough oil to make the USA oil independent is not one of them.) There’s an internet message going around that says it takes 12 million barrels of oil per year to make all the plastic bags we use. Not true—79% of North American plastic grocery bags are made from natural gas, not oil. Even if it were true, 12 million barrels a year is only 14 hours of total U.S. oil consumption out of the entire year.
  • Platinum, palladium, the rare-earth elements lanthanum, neodymium, and praseodymium, an unusual clay mineral called halloysite, and natural and synthetic zeolites are among the mineral commodities needed in petroleum refining. America relies on imports for most of these materials: platinum from South Africa, palladium from Russia, rare earths from China. New Mexico supplies the greatest volume of natural zeolites, and one mine in Utah is the world’s largest known deposit of halloysite.
  • The Middle East has something like half to two-thirds of all the oil in the world. Why? It takes several pages in the book to explain in detail, but the simple answer is a series of lucky accidents of geology.
Enough for now—but oil will return to the blog in the future!
Public domain pumpjack image via Wikipedia.

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