20 Things You Didn't Know About... Oil

Learn more about the world's biggest fuel source—while it's still around.

By Susan Kruglinski|Saturday, June 28, 2008

1   This list is about black gold. Texas tea. Petroleum, or crude oil. Which is in no way related to the oils we eat or excrete.

2  If you are a creationist, crude oil was formed by thousands of years of heat and pressure applied to the carcasses of plants and animals that died in the Great Flood. If you’re not, you think oil comes from dinosaurs, right?

3  Wrong. Almost all oil comes from pressure-cooking dead zooplankton and algae—pond scum, in other words—which are among the oldest and most abundant life forms on earth.

4  Don’t blame the Hummers. That pond scum ultimately produced trillions upon trillions of gallons of oil. But most of it bubbled up to the surface long ago and was consumed by greedy bacteria.

5  Oil companies seek the small fraction that remains, spending more than $150 billion a year hunting for new reserves.

6  Fashion march of the penguins: Thousands of tiny, colorful sweaters have been knit for these flightless birds, to keep them from preening themselves if they are doused in oil from a spill.

7  When you buy gasoline, you might want to make your purchase at night—it will be cheaper. Gasoline becomes more dense in cooler temperatures, and gas pumps measure gas by volume.

8  A tip for trippers: Keep your windows closed at high speeds—drag from open windows can reduce a car’s fuel efficiency by 10 percent.

Neatness counts too: Cleaning 100 pounds of junk from your car will get you up to 2 percent more miles per gallon.

10   Another trip tip: Instead of taking a break for lunch at a restaurant, cook food on your engine. Find out how (and get a recipe for Hyundai Halibut With Fennel) in the classic book Manifold Destiny.

11  The recipe for gasoline itself is complex. Depending on the blend, it can contain between 150 and 1,000 different chemical compounds.

12  Tighten your gas cap. A leaking or missing cap can release 30 gallons of fuel per year into the atmosphere.

13  In California alone, vapors from gas stations account for enough gasoline to fill two tanker trucks every day.

14  Speaking of tankers, that truck you’re trying to pass may be carrying 4,000 gallons of gas, which, if in a crash, can explode with the energy of 200 tons of TNT.

15  By the eighth century, a petroleum industry already existed in the Middle East. The streets of Baghdad were paved with tar derived from petroleum.

16  In oil-rich Baku, Azerbaijan, north of Iran, villagers could once dig a hole in the ground with their hands, drop in a live coal, and start a fire.

17  In the United States, when people first noticed oil, they didn’t quite grasp the energy angle. Instead they did what any industrious American would do: They bottled it, slapped a label on, and sold it as a health tonic.

18  Several hundred thousand bottles of the stuff are said to have been purchased and, perhaps, consumed.

19  Since they moved on from the health drink angle, Americans have laid down 161,000 miles of fuel pipeline in the United States. That’s more than half the distance to the moon.

20  Spies like pipelines. Engineers use a robotic device known as a smart pig to inspect pipelines from the inside. Two James Bond movies so far have made oil pipelines and pigs part of the plot: The Living Daylights and The World Is Not Enough. You will have to wait until November to see if the pattern is repeated in the next Bond installment, Quantum of Solace.

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