Petroleum Products

Far beyond refined fuels for transportation, light and heating.

Beyond gasoline and kerosene, a 42-gallon barrel of refined oil produces nylon and polymer plastics for lifesaving hospital equipment, computers, pipes, and insulation, and much more. Gasoline accounts for more 20 gallons of the oil barrel’s products. Other widely used products include propane, naphtha, carbon black, asphalt, heating oil, lubricants, paints and solvents, detergents and waxes (lipstick and  tires, too). Natural gas is used in fertilizers and synthetics. Recognizing the role of petroleum in modern society is part of the debate about the future of fossil fuels.


Camphene to Kerosene Lamps

Until replaced by kerosene in after the Civil War, the most popular lamp fuel in America was a cheap but explosive “burning fluid” called camphene, a volatile combination of turpentine and alcohol with camphor oil added for aroma.

Asphalt Paves the Way

President Ulysses S. Grant first directed that Pennsylvania Avenue be paved with Trinidad bitumen in 1876. Thirty-one years later, asphalt derived from petroleum distillation was used to repave the famed pathway to the Capitol. The president’s road paving project covered about 54,000 square yards.

Nylon, a Petroleum Polymer

The world’s first synthetic fiber – nylon – was discovered in 1935 by a former Harvard professor working at DuPont’s research laboratory in Delaware. The petroleum product “Nylon 6” was created by professor Wallace Carothers, who produced a polymer string that stretched.

Petroleum Product Hoopla

To make Hula Hoops and Frisbees, Arthur Melin and his Wham-O Company partner Richard Kerr, chose a newly invested plastic called Marlex. The world’s first high-density polyethylene, Marlex was invented by two research chemists at Phillips Petroleum Company  in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

Kerosene Rocket Fuel

Closeup of Saturn five engines fueled by kerosene.

Kerosene fueled the Saturn V’s first-stage engines — and today’s latest rocket engines.

A 19th century petroleum product made America’s 1969 moon landing possible. Kerosene rocket fuel powered the first stage of the Saturn V of the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969. The Saturn V’s five first-stage engines burned “Rocket Grade Kerosene Propellant.” They consumed 2,230 gallons per second – generating almost eight million pounds of thrust.

Carbon Black and Oilfield Crayons

Booming Pennsylvania oilfields led to new petroleum products, supplying oil and natural gas feedstock for Binney & Smith Company’s carbon black, which won an award at the 1900 Paris Exposition. The company then took common oilfield paraffin and changed the company’s pigment destiny by famously adding color crayons to children’s imaginations.

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Ethyl Anti-Knock Gas

After General Motors scientists discovered the anti-knock properties of tetraethyl lead gasoline in 1921, American motorists would be saying, “Fill ‘er up with Ethyl.” Although it’s properties proved vital for aviation engines during World War II, phase-out for use in car gasoline began in 1976.

Diamond Filling Station

As America’s enthusiasm for “horseless carriages” soared, so did demand for gasoline. S.F. Bowser gasoline pumps fueled a growing number of customers. Here is an educational Library of Congress photo of a 1920 gas station and its attendant on North Capitol Street in Washington, D.C.

Standard Oil Whiting Refinery

Modern oil refinery, pipes and equipment

Construction of a massive, still-operating refinery in Whiting, Indiana, began in 1889.

Beginning in the 1890s, the Whiting refinery of Standard Oil Company of Indiana processed crude oil into petroleum products a growing number of people and businesses needed: axle grease for industrial machinery, paraffin wax for candles, kerosene for home lighting. Soon the world;s largest refinery added gasoline production. BP completed a multi-year, multi-billion dollar modernization of the Whiting refinery in 2013.

Oleaginous History of Wax Lips

Paraffin, a byproduct of the petroleum products of distillation, found its way from refinery to marketplace in the form of candles, sealing waxes – and peculiar American candies. An inspired Buffalo, New York, confectioner soon used fully refined, food-grade paraffin and a sense of humor to find a niche in America’s imagination.

Oil, Vaseline and Maybelline Cosmetics

Here is an unusual petroleum products tale: the crude story of Mabel’s eyelashes. A young New York chemist distills paraffin from Pennsylvania oilfields into petroleum jelly – Vaseline. His incredibly popular invention will lead to creation of an equally popular mascara and Maybelline cosmetics.


Recommended Reading:  Highlighted History Books from Amazon; Education and Teaching Books; Biographies and Memoirs; Engineering and Transportation; and Politics and Social Sciences. Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.


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