Oil on the Brain

I’m reading Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline by Lisa Margonelli — and I am enjoying it immensely. That is, I’m enjoying learning, and I’m enjoying the writing. The nervous pit in my stomach from all that learning — not so much enjoyment. I just finished the refinery chapter — Margonelli visits BP’s refinery in Carson CA — and there’s a shut-down. Here’s one paragraph that showcases Margonelli’s ability to present the science:

Refineries are molecular butchers, dissembling crude oil and shaping it into smaller, reusable components. Crude arrives as a stew of hydrocarbon chains — some as short and gassy as methane, which consists of 1 carbon atom and 4 hydrogen atoms, and some as long and heavily sludgy as the asphaltenes, which can have 150 carbon atoms surrounded by messy scrums of hydrogen atoms. Mixed in you’ll also find sulfur, salts, nitrogen, and metals. A refinery sorts these molecules by size and behavior and then cuts and re-forms as many as possible to make the 3- to 12-carbon molecular variety pack that is gasoline. Sorting requires fractionating towers to separate the components by weight, and a whole variety of other vessels with catalysts, vacuums, re-formers, and compressors to re-shape the molecules. The key ingredient is steam — a million pounds an hour, one-and-a-half gallons of water for every gallon of crude. (50)

This image of a “molecular butcher” is uncanny — anthropomorphizes the whole huge process — which is a hugely complicated piece of chemical choreography — and makes it tangible, comprehensible. I like the surprise of the word “scrum” — the image of hydrogen atoms in a rugby huddle, scrapping around a huge pile of carbon atoms — sweet. So — this paragraph offers a big picture (refinery as molecular butcher), the details (molecular breakdown), humor (scrum), and clear science. Fresh and clear writing — a joy to read. The next paragraph continues Margonelli’s tour of the refinery with Walter Neil, “head of community relations for the refinery” (48):

Crude oil arrives on tankers in the port of Long Beach, entering the southern end of the refinery by pipeline. Walter and I start there and head north, past the fractionating towers that sort the hydrocarbon strings by their boiling point. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of towers in the refinery, all looking like headless silver rockets with a [sic] spiral staircases twinning around them. Inside each tower forty trays sit at different levels. When the steamy hydrocarbons enter as gases, they condense in the trays with the lightest molecules on top and the heaviest on the bottom. The streams of sorted hydrocarbons are taken to the next treatment, and the next. We pass pipes and towers and more pipes until we close in on the fluid catalytic cracker, the refinery’s most important piece of equipment. The cat cracker uses steam, hydrogen, and a catalyst to break long hydrocarbon chains into short, neat gasoline molecules. It produces a quarter of the gasoline the city of Los Angeles uses daily, and it feeds a whole complex of towers and equipment that finish the gasoline. “I call them the children of the cat cracker,” Walter says, [sic] “All of them serve that big monster.” (50-51)

That description helps me visualize what happens at a refinery. I still want to see it — how do those molecules settle into trays anyway? — but I know 2000 times more about a refinery than I did before reading Margonelli’s descriptions and explanations.

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One response to “Oil on the Brain

  1. I like the text that you posted from the book. In organic chemistry and biology, we learn about naming those long hydrocarbons, looking at the energies of differnt hydrocarbon shapes, bonds, and lengths. It’s always interesting and provides insight into the subject that’s being studied by looking at real-life examples and applications. The breaking and formation of hydrocarbon bonds are often seen in in biological processes to supply energy and form structures within cell molecules. Insightful post.

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