What is Petroleum Processing?

Mary McMahon

Petroleum processing is a series of procedures which are used to transform petroleum from crude fresh out of the ground to finished consumer products, ranging from aviation fuel to plastics. There are numerous stages involved in petroleum processing which can take place in different locales. Many companies specialize in petroleum processing and refining, and may also be involved in crude oil extraction and consumer sales of petroleum.

Petroleum processing transforms crude oil into usable products.
Petroleum processing transforms crude oil into usable products.

Crude oil contains a mixture of solid, liquid, and gaseous hydrocarbons. When it is first pulled out of the ground, crude is largely useless, despite the fact that it's known as “black gold.” In a crude state, the usable components of petroleum are essentially locked up where no one can access them. Petroleum processing is used to extract the various usable components.

The usable components of crude oil are separated during the distillation process.
The usable components of crude oil are separated during the distillation process.

In petroleum processing, the usable components of crude oil are separated out during a distillation process. The distillation process breaks down the hydrocarbon chains in the crude oil to access fractional components such as kerosene and gasoline. The components extracted vary, depending on the crude the processor starts with and the processes used. Processors can adjust their production of petroleum products to meet supply and demand constraints.

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If, for example, the market is glutted with kerosene, extracting kerosene is of little value. Thus, the crude may be processed and refined to minimize the amount of kerosene produced. On the other hand, if the supply is low and demand is on the rise, increasing kerosene production is a smart business move which will allow a petroleum processor to tap into the market and get a good price.

Facilities where petroleum processing and refining occur are quite large, and they are more like a set of interconnected facilities than a continuous production line. These facilities are managed by staffs who control the equipment used to process the petroleum, making adjustments as necessary to address specific needs and issues. Petroleum processing often takes place along major rail, truck, and ship routes to provide easy access to transport of finished products, which cuts down on costs.

People who are interested in petroleum processing can be involved in different areas of the process. Engineers work with the materials on the production line, and may also be involved in the development of new equipment to streamline the process. Administrators make decisions about what to produce and how much to produce, as well as negotiating contracts with suppliers and purchasers of products. Technicians are involved in the day to day work of a processing facility, from running equipment to cleaning distillation chambers.

Kerosene is a product of crude oil distillation.
Kerosene is a product of crude oil distillation.

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