Two generations ago petroleum became a revolutionary energy source used to transport man from place to place. Next, it was employed to heat homes economically. More recently, manufacturers have begun using it to fabricate clothing, wash dishes, and fill medicine cabinets. Tomorrow, this versatile natural substance may be called in to complete the cycle of human needs—it may help feed man.
The 104 years since the first successful well-drilling in Pennsylvania have been lively. But oil’s second century promises to be even more exciting. The oil industry’s new pioneers are already seeing to that. Last year, in the United States alone, oil industry chemists, physicists and engineers conducted $328 million dollars’ worth of research. The year before, the figure was almost as large. The fruits of their study, however, could prove to be every bit as astonishing as the costs. Here are a few of the uses of oil tomorrow which are being tried out today.
Food from oil…The creation of synthetic protein from petroleum to help feed food-shortage areas is high on the list of current British and American oil company research projects. Manufacture of fats, sugars and other carbohydrates from oil is possible. The Germans tried out butter made from oil as far back as World War II.
More uses from asphalt…Asphalt obtained from petroleum residue is turning up increasingly in homebuilding, in the form of shingles, siding, flooring and insulation. Soon, scientists say, it will even appear in upholstery in quantity. But asphalt’s most dramatic new facet may show up in botany. A cotton, corn or other field covered with an asphalt film effectively retains moisture normally lost through evaporation. And asphalt’s most dramatic new facet may show up in botany. A cotton, corn or other field covered with an asphalt film effectively retains moisture normally lost through evaporation. And after the six weeks required for seed germination and soil breakthrough, the film conveniently disappears. When perfected, asphalt film may very well revolutionize agriculture; even alleviate now-perpetual “dust bowl” conditions in large areas of the world!
Unwanted ice eliminated…Such important world waterways as the St. Lawrence Seaway could conceivably be kept open year-round by “bubbling” warmer water up from the bottom to a frozen surface. Experiments of bubbling air from diesel-driven machinery are underway.
Melting snow, by discharging the exhaust gases from oil burners under water, has important implications for cities where removal problems are acute. This futuristic method is already in operation at a Massachusetts parking lot, where snow is bulldozed into a pit for melting instead of being hauled away.
Petrochemicals for everything…Already responsible for many plastics, fibers and synthetic rubber, petrochemicals will play an immeasurable role in tomorrow’s demand for new products. As the name implies, petrochemicals are chemicals made from petroleum, specifically from the hydrocarbons found in the latter. How do scientists change these hydrocarbons into drip-fry shirts and plastic dishes? By cracking and separating parts, somewhat in the manner a cook separates the yold from the white of an egg. One of the petrochemist’s recipes might call for making material for raincoats. With a slight variation, he may produce the chemicals used in detergents, or say, the fizz in a bottle of soda. His “kitchen,” however, is a sprawling, multiple-tower cracking plant.
Petroleum is wonderfully compliant about being broken down and allowing its atoms and molecules to be arranged in new combinations. Thus, with current knowledge, it is thought that chemists can make 500,000 such combinations (chemical compounds) from petroleum. In practice, petrochemicals today account for 25 per cent of all chemicals made; in ten years the percentage is expected to double.
There indeed seems to be no end to the tasks that petroleum will be asked to perform. That fact would startle those ancient people of the Middle East who, 6,000 years ago recorded their objections to the “rock oil” that seeped into their sticky substance. Those who came after them have never stopped finding uses.