Complex mixture of hydrocarbons derived from the geologic transformation and decomposition of plants and animals that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. As a technical term, petroleum encompasses the liquid (crude oil), gaseous (natural gas), and viscous or solid (bitumen, asphalt) forms of hydrocarbons that occur in the Earth, but the meaning is often restricted to the liquid oil form. Crude oil and natural gas are the most important primary fossil fuels. Asphalt has been used since ancient times to caulk ships and pave roads. In the mid 1800s petroleum began to replace whale oil in lamps, and the first well specifically to extract it was drilled in 1859. The development of the automobile gave petroleum a new role as the source of gasoline. Petroleum and its products have since been used as fuels for heating, for land, air, and sea transport, and for electric power generation and as petrochemical sources and lubricants. Crude oil and natural gas, produced mostly in Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and Russia, now account for about 60% of world energy consumption; the U.S. is by far the largest consumer. At present rates of consumption, the known supply will be exhausted by the mid 21st century. Petroleum is recovered from drilled wells, transported by pipeline or tanker ship to refineries, and there converted to fuels and petrochemicals.
Variants of PETROLEUM
petroleum or crude oil
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise.
For the full entry on petroleum, visit Britannica.com.
Seen & Heard
What made you look up petroleum? Please tell us what you were reading, watching or discussing that led you here.