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Petroleum, along with oil and coal, is classified as a fossil fuel. Fossil fuels are formed when sea plants and animals die, and the remains become buried under several thousand feet of silt, sand or mud. Fossil fuels take millions of years to form and therefore petroleum is also considered to be a non-renewable energy source.
Petroleum is formed by hydrocarbons (a hydrocarbon is a compound made up of carbon and hydrogen) with the addition of certain other substances, primarily sulphur. Petroleum in its natural form when first collected is usually named crude oil, and can be clear, green or black and may be either thin like gasoline or thick like tar.
There are several major oil producing regions around the globe. The Kuwait and Saudi Arabia’s crude oil fields are the largest, although Middle East oil from other countries in the region such as Iran and Iraq also make up a significant part of world production figures.
The UK’s North Sea crude oil fields are still fairly full, and are arguably the second most influential oil field in economic terms. Texas, once the world’s major oil region, is now almost completely dry.
Originally the primary use of petroleum was as a lighting fuel, once it had been distilled and turned into kerosene. When Edison opened the world’s first electricity generating plant in 1882 the demand for kerosene began to drop. However, by this time Henry Ford had shown the world that the car would be the best form of transport for decades to come, and gasoline began to be a product in high demand.
World War I was the real catalyst for petroleum production, with more petroleum being produced throughout the war than had ever been produced previously. In modern times petroleum is viewed as a valuable commodity, traded around the world in the same way as gold and diamonds.
Most people tend to believe that petroleum is mostly used to power internal combustion engines in the form of gasoline or petrol. Although our cars and other forms of transport do consume the highest quantity of petroleum it is used for a vast array of applications.
In its thickest form, the almost black petroleum is named bitumen, this is used for paving road, forming the blacktop, it is also an excellent water repellent and is used in roofing.
Petroleum is also a major part of the chemical makeup of many plastics and synthetics. Possibly the most startling usage of petroleum for many people is its appearance in foodstuffs such as beer and in medications such as aspirin.
The world has a limited supply of petroleum, and current estimations tell us that within the next few decades mankind will have completely depleted this valuable natural resource. Although measures have been taken to ensure that there are cheap, renewable fuel options in place for the eventuality it is still obvious that mankind faces a serious problem when petroleum supplies finally run out.