Living with hydrocarbons

21/10/2005 The rain patters on the asphalt, making a waterproof jacket welcome. A bus stands waiting. A fleece provides extra warmth - on yet another petroleum day.

This article was first published in Norwegian Continental Shelf no. 2-2005

People seldom reflect how often they come into contact with products based on oil and, to a great extent, on gas. These range from children's Lego bricks to contact lenses and shoes.

Things were very different a century ago, when hydrocarbons played a much smaller part in our lives. Today, it is hardly possible to get through a normal day without encountering them.

Cars, telephones, salami packaging, garden hoses, stockings - the list is endless. These things may be of greater or lesser significance, but all represents small pieces of everyday life.

Norway occupies a special position. Despite having about three per cent of the world's gas resources, the country uses very little of this commodity itself. Most of its gas is exported to Britain or continental Europe, unlike most other producers which consume a much larger proportion of their output domestically.

Only a fraction of the world's natural gas is used to produce industrial products, with just four per cent providing feedstock for petrochemicals in Europe and only two per cent worldwide.

Unprocessed natural gas is often called "rich gas" because it contains a number of heavier hydrocarbons, which are removed before the remaining dry gas is sold to Europe.

Known as dew point processing, this separation method is applied in special plants such as the Kårstø complex north of Stavanger.

Ethane, propane and butanes - collectively termed natural gas liquids (NGL) - are removed there, along with condensate or natural gasoline.
Dry gas (largely methane) is used for cooking as well as for heating in households and industry, with a growing proportion being burnt to generate electricity.

When gas replaces coal or heavy fuel oil in power stations, emissions of carbon dioxide are greatly reduced.

The chemical industry uses dry gas as feedstock for ammonia and methanol production, and in oxo processes which involve converting the methane to synthesis gas.

This mix of hydrogen and carbon monoxide is then used to produce the final product.

Ammonia provides feedstock for making fertilisers and explosives as well as artificial fibres for carpets, jackets and sweaters.

Methanol has a variety of applications, including additives in paint, solvents and feedstock for producing the adhesives found in fibreboards. Oil-based paints or stains derived from this chemical protect external woodwork in houses.

Cars provide good evidence of the modern dependence on oil and gas, apart from their obvious need of petrol or diesel oil, lubricating oils and asphalt to run on.

A growing proportion of the actual vehicle is also made from petroleum-based plastics, which have the advantage of weighing less than the equivalent metal components. This creates a lighter car, which needs less fuel.

More of the one, less of something else, but always petroleum.


Updated: 04/09/2009