How Is Fuel for Cars Made?by Edwin ThomasUpdated August 06, 2023
Whenever you make your frequent trips to the gas station, you may wonder how the fuel for your car is made. The process of producing liquid fuel for cars involves a complex series of steps, beginning with the extraction and shipping of petroleum, a mixture of hydrocarbons and natural gas, to the refining process. This journey is essential to ensure the availability of gasoline, diesel, biodiesel, ethanol, and other alternative fuels which power our vehicles and form an integral part of the fuel system. Let's delve into the details of how these fuels are made and their impact on the automotive industry, fuel economy, and the environment.
Extraction and Shipping
The process commences with the extraction of petroleum, a mixture of hydrocarbons, from oil reservoirs, identified through geological surveying. Once discovered, wells are drilled, and the oil is extracted along with natural gas. Interestingly, only about two-thirds of the oil in a well can be removed, even in the most accessible cases. After extraction, the oil is transported to a refinery, typically through pipelines or tankers.
An oil refinery is an incredibly complicated, large-scale chemical processing plant. At the refinery, the crude oil undergoes a sophisticated chemical processing procedure. This involves turning this raw material into usable petroleum products, which include diesel, jet fuel, heating oil and gasoline. Distillation is the fundamental method used, where the crude oil is heated until the desired components vaporize, leaving impurities behind. The vapor is then condensed back into liquid and collected. Petroleum distillation, involving hydrocarbons with different boiling points, sometimes requires different pressures, making it a sophisticated process.
Gasoline, a liquid fuel widely used in cars, is primarily produced through progressive distillation of crude oil. While this used to be the final step, modern engines demand higher-performing fuel. Therefore, various petroleum products produced through chemical processing, such as reformate, cat cracked naphtha, isomerate, alkylate, virgin naphtha, and hydrocrackate, are blended in with gasoline to enhance its quality and performance.
Diesel fuel, another liquid fuel commonly used in diesel engines, is mainly derived from petroleum through fractional distillation at normal pressure and temperatures ranging between 200 and 350 degrees Celsius. Compared to gasoline production, making diesel is relatively straightforward.
Propane and Lubricating Oil
Beyond gasoline and diesel, the refining process also produces propane, a highly flammable liquid fuel widely used in residential heating, cooking, and as an automotive fuel in some cases. Lubricating oils, essential for proper engine function and the smooth operation of the fuel system, are also produced during refining to ensure smooth and reliable engine performance.
Biodiesel, Ethanol, and E-fuel
The automotive industry has also explored renewable fuel options. Biodiesel, for example, is made from non-petroleum oils like soy or vegetable oil. After filtering for purity, it is processed with a mixture of sodium hydroxide and alcohol.
Ethanol, on the other hand, is produced through alcohol distillation. Grains and vegetable matter are combined with water and yeast to create a mash, which ferments and produces low-grade alcohol. This is then distilled multiple times to concentrate the alcohol.
E-fuel, a form of synthetic fuel produced using renewable energy like biomass or electricity, shows promise as a future alternative to conventional fuels.
Impact on the Automotive Industry, Fuel Economy, and the Environment
As the automotive industry shifts toward cleaner and more sustainable options, renewable fuels and electric vehicles are gaining popularity. Efforts to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions are a priority for automakers. Renewable fuels like biodiesel and ethanol help reduce carbon dioxide emissions and dependence on fossil fuels. Additionally, advancements in electric vehicles, fuel cells, and alternative fuels like hydrogen are shaping the future of automotive transportation.
The constant pursuit of fuel efficiency, along with the exploration of cleaner energy sources, demonstrates the commitment of automakers like BMW, Porsche, Toyota, and others to combat climate change. As automotive technology evolves, the availability of electric cars, hybrid vehicles, and more efficient internal combustion engines contributes to efforts to create a carbon-neutral future.