Fly Me To The Stars

As you walk towards your plane on the airport’s tarmac you will often catch the faint wafting perfume of one of our most important fuels without which our world would be a different – indeed a very different place. For what you are smelling is kerosene.

Although this fuel can be extracted from coal, wood and oil shale, it is principally derived from refined petroleum.

Well before the electric light became popular, this liquid was widely used in oil lamps with flammable wicks to bring light into homes. Even today in parts of the world where electricity is scarce Africa and the Far east this product is used as a lighting source. In Nigeria today some 80 per cent of homes rely on it for cooking, heating and light. Used in a primarily domestic setting this liquid is known as paraffin.

Today kerosene is principally used as a fuel in jet engines, as heating oil and as a solvent in certain insecticide sprays.

A Technical Revolution Lights up the US

The genesis of the discovery of this fuel is interesting. It was discovered by doctor and geologist, Abraham Gesner in 1846 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, United States. That evening In front of a small crowd Gesner demonstrated that by distilling coal, he was able to produce a clear fluid. If the resultant liquid was burned in an oil lamp with an absorbent wick, a pale yellow flame would be given off. He named this liquid kerosene from the Greek word for wax oil.

Little did that small audience know that what they had just witnessed would prove to be one of the world’s most revolutionary finds both in cultural and technological terms. Today its use around the world continues to expand with new uses in the offing.

At the time of its discovery, most homes used lamps fuelled by fat or whale oil to give some light and heat. But when it was ascertained that this fantastic new fluid could also be derived from petrol, it was only then that the kerosene revolution exploded. The oil was used in other ways  to bring light to headlamps in early cars, in ships lanterns and for illuminating signalling devices on trains. It was also used by farmers to extend their working days and produce higher yields from their crops.

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Two other interesting applications were introduced – as a dry cleaning agent and as an insecticide for killing head lice! By 1860 there were almost 30 refineries in the United States producing this fuel. At around 30 cents a gallon it became a popular and inexpensive means for lighting homes, shops, factories and all kinds of public and private buildings all around the world.

In many of the more affluent parts of the world today, the use of this pale liquid as a source of light, has of course, been usurped by electricity. But as a means of producing light, it is still used and valued enormously by many in the third world and in remote places out of reach of electricity. There are many far-flung communities throughout the world that rely on this fuel on a daily basis.

New Uses for this Most Important of Fuels

The future of this incredible substance really depends on the discovery of new applications as well as new methods of production. There is an increasing demand from the military for the fuel to replace diesel with JP8 a jet fuel based on ingredients extracted from this miraculous liquid.

As the demand for it and its by-products grow new methods of refining and extraction will become crucial. The international company ExxonMobil has developed a low cost way of extracting high purity paraffin from the liquid. The process uses ammonia to extract any contaminants that may be present.

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