Fractional distillation of crude oil

Fractional distillation separates a mixture into a number of different parts, called fractions.

A tall fractionating column is fitted above the mixture, with several condensers coming off at different heights. The column is hot at the bottom and cool at the top. Substances with high boiling points condense at the bottom and substances with lower boiling points condense on the way to the top.

Crude oil is a mixture of hydrocarbons. The crude oil is evaporated and its vapours condense at different temperatures in the fractionating column. Each fraction contains hydrocarbon molecules with a similar number of carbon atoms and a similar range of boiling points.

Oil fractions

The diagram below summarises the main fractions from crude oil and their uses, and the trends in properties. Note that the gases leave at the top of the column, the liquids condense in the middle and the solids stay at the bottom.

Heated crude oil separates as it rises through column and cools from 350 degrees C to 25 degrees C. Products obtained are bitumen, fuel oil, diesel fuel for cars, kerosene, gasoline, refinery gases.The fractionating column

As you go up the fractionating column, the hydrocarbons have:

  1. lower boiling points
  2. lower viscosity (they flow more easily)
  3. higher flammability (they ignite more easily).

Other fossil fuels

Crude oil is not the only fossil fuel.

Natural gas mainly consists of methane. It is used in domestic boilers, cookers and Bunsen burners, as well as in some power stations.

Coal was formed from the remains of ancient forests. It can be burned in power stations. Coal is mainly carbon but it may also contain sulfur compounds, which produce sulfur dioxide when the coal is burned. This gas is a cause of acid rain. Also, as all fossil fuels contain carbon, the burning of any fossil fuel will contribute to global warming due to the production of carbon dioxide.