Friday, March 4, 2011

Kerosene

Kilometers are shorter than miles.  Save gas, take your next trip in kilometers. 
~George Carlin
For the past ten years my wife has been a tour guide at Kykuit, the summer home of J.D Rockefeller. Perhaps you know that by most accounts, JDR is the wealthiest man in modern history. His fortune at his death (1937) was equal to nearly 2% of all the wealth in the nation. And you may recall that he made his money in Oil and created the Standard Oil Company (the world's first and largest multinational corporation until it was broken up by the Supreme Court in 1911.)

What you may not know is that Standard Oil's initial wealth was built not upon gasoline but kerosene which was used in oil lamps before the invention of the light bulb (1879) and the availability of electricity in homes (1905-1925). Before 1900, gasoline was considered a waste byproduct of oil refinement. JDR was very lucky. While the market for kerosene vanished in the early 20th century, a new market for gasoline powered cars was created and flourished and kept Standard Oil in business.

If you're like me, you may be clueless on what the difference is between kerosene and gasoline. So here's what I found...

Crude oil pumped out­ of the ground is a black liquid called petroleum which is composed of hydrocarbon molecules of different lengths. The length affects the molecular properties. The shortest chains are gases: CH4 (methane), C2H6 (ethane), C3H8 (propane) and C4H10 (butane). The chains above C19 are solid at room temperature while the chains in the middle are liquids. If you deduce from this that molecule length changes the boiling temperature, you're right!

According to HowStuffWorks.com,
The chains from C7H16 through C11H24 are blended together and used for gasoline. All of them vaporize at temperatures below the boiling point of water. That's why if you spill gasoline on the ground it evaporates very quickly.
Next is kerosene, in the C12 to C15 range, followed by diesel fuel and heavier fuel oils (like heating oil for houses).
Next come the lubricating oils. These oils no longer vaporize in any way at normal temperatures. For example, engine oil can run all day at 250 degrees F (121 degrees C) without vaporizing at all. Oils go from very light (like 3-in-1 oil) through various thicknesses of motor oil through very thick gear oils and then semi-solid greases. Vasoline falls in there as well.
Chains above the C20 range form solids, starting with paraffin wax, then tar and finally asphaltic bitumen, which is used to make asphalt roads.
The boiling point of hydrocarbons also impacts its flammability. A lit match tossed onto gasoline will burn aggressively. If you drop a match into diesel or kerosene, the match will go out. For this reason kerosene is safer than gasoline in the home and Diesel fuel is safer for trucks with giant gas tanks and for military vehicles. It takes a very high pressure for Diesel to burn. 

Bottom Line

Kerosene is typically (and in some jurisdictions legally required to be) stored in a blue container in order to avoid it getting confused with the much more flammable gasoline, which is typically kept in a red container. Diesel fuel is generally stored in yellow containers.

Today kerosene is used as a cooking fuel in less developed countries and for portable stoves for backpackers. There are also kerosene space heaters for use during power failures. (Not recommended for closed indoor areas without a chimney due to the danger of build-up of carbon monoxide gas.)

The Amish, who abstain from electricity, still rely on kerosene for lighting at night.

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