How does an oil refinery work?   Back


Nite Refinery Conoco's greatest product produced by volume is gasoline, followed by diesel, jet fuel, kerosene and heating oils.

Crude oil from Oklahoma, Kansas, and North and West Texas fields comes to Conoco via pipeline. The refinery then produces a wide array of petroleum products that fuel cars, trucks, airplanes, homes, power plants and factories. Products from the refinery also serve as feedstocks for items purchased in drug, hardware and department stores.

Processing a barrel of crude oil at the Conoco refinery yields an average of 57 percent in various grades of gasoline. Another 38 percent becomes diesel fuel for cars, trucks and railroad engines; commercial and military jet fuels; kerosene; and heating oils for homes and industry. Nearly 4 percent is LPG (propane and fuel gas). In addition, residual oil is used to produce coke for aluminum smelters.

The products produced here are shipped by pipeline and truck to markets throughout the Midwest.

The Basic Process

Crude oil, as it comes from the earth, is a mixture of hydrocarbons - compounds of hydrogen and carbon. The basic purpose of a refinery is to separate and transform these various hydrocarbon groups so that they may be used, combined or further treated to create the thousands of products made from petroleum.

Basic Process One of the fundamental processing units is the fractionating tower (shown at right in the drawing). Because hydrocarbons vaporize at different temperatures, the crude oil is heated and the mixture of hot vapors and liquid goes into the tower.

The liquid or residual oil is drawn off at the bottom to be used as asphalt or heavy fuel. As the vapors rise, they cool, condense and are drawn off at various levels in the tower; the most volatile are drawn off as gases at the top.

These "streams" are piped to other areas of the refinery, such as the catalytic cracker, reformer and alkylation unit, to be formed by various combinations of heat, pressure and chemistry into the products desired.

Flow Diagram

The Petroleum Industry Today

Oil and natural gas supply 65 percent of the energy used in the United States today. The U.S. Energy Administration indicates oil furnishes 40 percent of our energy, natural gas - 25 percent, coal - 22 percent, nuclear - 8 percent, and renewables - 4 percent.

Oil Products Oil products fuel planes, trains, cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles. Oil also is used to heat homes. Chemicals made from oil are used to make products ranging from makeup, toys, fabrics, sneakers and football helmets to aspirin, toothpaste, deodorant, clothes, hair dryers and lipstick. Plastics made from oil are widely used in everything from compact discs and videocassette recorders to computers, TVs and telephones.

Oil industry investment in the United States totals half a trillion dollars in wells, refineries and distribution systems. This is five times the size of the U.S. automobile industry. The industry employs 1.5 million people directly and 6 million people indirectly.

Safety of employees and protection of the environment are just as important to the industry as the discovery and production of oil and gas. The air in the United States is cleaner today than it ever has been since the industrialization of America. The petroleum industry has developed cleaner-burning gasolines that emit fewer pollutants into the air, has taken lead out of gasoline, has created vapor recovery systems on gasoline nozzles and has improved refinery operations to reduce emissions. Refinery emissions today represent only 2 percent of all industry releases.

In 1996, the United States consumed 18.2 million barrels of oil a day. Almost half of that oil is produced here in the United States, and the rest is imported.

In the past 20 years, gasoline demand has grown by almost 10 percent, even though automobiles and truck fleets are 40 percent more efficient than they were in the 1970s. The demand has increased substantially because people are driving more miles - 75 percent more than in the early 1970s.

To meet that demand, while faced with low oil prices, technological advances are being pursued differently than in the past. Stand-alone research efforts are being replaced by strategic alliances within the industry. While the world holds a finite supply of oil, we're not in danger of running out anytime soon. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the earth could hold as much as 2.1 trillion barrels of crude oil - enough to supply the world with oil for the next 63 to 95 years.

Producers and consumers have a mutual interest in the technological strides needed to keep petroleum competitive - environmentally and economically. Petroleum is an industry the world depends on - and will depend on for a very long time - for practical, affordable, reliable fuels that give heat, light, transport manufactured goods, and benefits we can no longer imagine living without.

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Copyright © 2001 Conoco Oil. Used by permission.