Oil 101 [Book Review]

This was a good read for me personally, but I can’t say the same for everyone. Because the book is VERY dry.

Oil 101, written by Morgan Downey, borders between general non-fiction and textbook. It’s very structured, but it lacks strong transitional means. However, being a book on everything oil including economics, pricing, extraction, processing, and many other topics, I would be hard pressed to find a better way to re-structure everything that the author is trying to present.

So the oil that the book is discussing is petroleum. The magical material that we extract from the ground for everything! And it’s kind of hard to describe petroleum as something more detailed than a liquid-like homogeneous mixture of mostly hydrocarbons. Being a variable amount of decayed organic matter pressed and heated, petroleum is not always black, is a mixture of gases/liquids/solids that need to be separated, will also have rock/sand/water/sulfur/etc that must also be removed, and can exist in various conditions from stagnant to exploding.

A surprise that came to my attention while reading the book is the amount of specialized jargon or “slang” terms for various oil types, worker positions, storage strategies, and annual sale trends. It’s a unique twist that makes you feel more “close” to the industry that you don’t find in many other “text-books.” For example, you’ll start to call oil “sweet” if the sulfur content is low, a valuable trait.

Additionally, being a structured book (and a relatively large one of 350 pages), you can jump around a lot and read the topics that best interest you at the time. I definitely skipped to petroleum petrochemical processing before reading about standards. Even though the book will start to slightly repeat itself the farther you go through the book, it also allows me to keep the book as an easy personal reference. Just like my anatomy and physiology book, because an EE TOTALLY uses that on a week-by-week basis. But it’s nice to have.

The book paints an entire picture of the petroleum industry, including how mid grade 89 gasoline at the pump is just a 50/50 mixture of 87 and 91 octane rated gas. But while stretching both science and economic topics, it isn’t too detailed in some topics that I was really itching to read more on (like water separation, do they just use a bunch of silicon pellets?). It’s a book that if you don’t know where to start, it’s a good place to begin. But if you are REALLY itching to discover various distillation methods, you may want to look elsewhere.

The one thing that this book scratches the surface on is the vast quantity of materials we use petroleum for. Bearing a large variety of hydrocarbons, the processing procedure for petroleum has many, many steps as it is separated into methane, liquid-like gasses (including propane), light liquids (like gasoline), heavier liquids (such as diesel), and the heavy stuff from grease and wax to that black stuff used in asphalt-paved roads. Not just for heating and energy, a lot of products can’t be readily made without these. Paints, plastics, pharmaceuticals. If it needs some sort of carbon make-up, it probably started out as petroleum ooze in the ground.

And if a component in the separation isn’t marketable, the it can be transformed. Gas is burned for petroleum heat reactors or combined with solids to break it down into liquids. Or heavy ends like coke can be “cooked” to be broken down (without oxygen, of course). Compounds can be mixed or just lightly added to a product to alter its octane or viscosity rating. It turns out to be a very flexible industry, despite it’s hardships and volatile market.

But none-the-less, if you like a good technical read, I definitely recommend.