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The SEPARATION of the crude oil mixture into fractions by fractional


AND the USES of these fractions

Crude oil is a finite resource found in rocks - its non-renewable, and will
run out eventually.

Crude oil is the remains of an ancient biomass consisting mainly of plankton that
was buried in mud and subjected to heat and pressure that slowly end up as a
yellow to brown liquid which may form pools or be absorbed into porous rocks
like shale.

Crude oil is an important raw material, and the source of many useful substances
such as fuels and a chemical feedstock for the petrochemical industry, from
which endless products, including plastics and drugs, are eventually
manufactured, BUT, it is a finite resource, and won't last forever !

Many useful materials on which modern life depends are produced by the
petrochemical industry, such as fuels, solvents, lubricants, polymers, detergents
and host of other specialised chemicals - even drugs for medicinal formulations.

When initially pumped out of the ground crude oil is a complex mixture of a very
large number of compounds most of which are hydrocarbons, molecules
composed of hydrogen and carbon atoms only and many of them are
hydrocarbons called alkanes (a particular series of organic compounds, that
compounds based on carbon - details in other sections).

The hydrocarbons may consist of molecules based on chains of carbon atoms

(mostly 1 to 40), sometimes linear ('straight') and sometimes branched (a side-
chain of C atoms) and others are based on rings of carbon atoms.

Examples ...

Straight chain or linear alkane hydrocarbons: ,

Branched alkane hydrocarbons: ,

Hydrocarbon ring compounds , , ,

Full explanation of the structure of the homologous series of alkanes and don't
worry about the ring compounds.

The complex
mixture of
hydrocarbons in
crude oil can be
separated into
fractions by the
technique of
distillation. The
demonstration of
the fractional
distillation is
illustrated on the
right diagram. A
simulated synthetic
crude oil is used
for health and
safety reasons. As
the crude oil
vapour ascends the fractionating column the highest boiling liquid hydrocarbons
condense out and the lowest boiling hydrocarbon liquid's vapour exits the top of
the fractionating column and enters the condenser and runs into the collection
tube. In this way you can distil over progressively higher boiling fractions, which
are themselves narrow boiling point ranges of different hydrocarbons of similar
carbon chain length e.g. C6 to C8 etc. Detailed notes explaining fractional

Crude oil cannot be used directly but must be refined before commercially useful
products are produced by the petrochemical industry (collectively called

The oil refining process principally involves fractional distillation into useful
fractions i.e. products with specific uses, but further processing may needed to
diversify both the quantity and nature of particular oil based products.

A fraction is a mixture of liquids (in this case hydrocarbons) with a relatively

narrow (restricted) boiling point range of molecules, i.e. those with a similar
number of carbon atoms in the chain.

Within each fraction obtained from crude oil the hydrocarbon molecules have a
similar number of carbon atoms and similar physical properties.

The uses of the fractions very much depends on their physical properties,
which in turn are dependant on the length of the molecule i.e. the carbon
atom chain in a hydrocarbon molecule.

 What goes on in an oil refinery?

 Crude oil is a complex mixture of
many compounds, but mainly
hydrocarbon compound molecules.
o A mixture consists of two or
more elements or compounds
which are NOT chemically
 Hydrocarbon o The chemical properties of each
molecules are substance in the mixture is
only made of a unchanged as the there are no
chemical combination chemical bonds between the
of carbon and hydrocarbon molecules.
hydrogen atoms. o Therefore a mixture can be
 They are compounds separated quite easily by
because they consist physical means eg fractional
of atoms of at least distillation.
two different o See notes on
elements.  Definitions in Chemistry –
 All the bonding is Elements, Compounds &
covalent C–C or C–H Mixtures
bonds  Examples of methods of
Separating Mixtures
 This means crude oil can be
separated by physical methods, in
this case by fractional distillation,
because they have different boiling
and condensation points.
o The liquids must also be
completely soluble in each other,
that is they must all be miscible
o When the temperature is high
enough, the kinetic energy of a
particular hydrocarbon molecule
will be sufficient for it to escape
the intermolecular forces in the
liquid and become a gas.
o The intermolecular forces are
much weaker than the strong
carbon - carbon bonds in the
hydrocarbon molecule, so it
vaporises without decomposes.
 At the bottom of the fractionating
column the crude oil is heated to
vapourise it (evaporated or boiled) and
the vapour passed into the
fractionating column – a large
construction of many levels and pipes,
see the 'simple' diagram below!
o A fractionating column acts in the
same way as a fractional
distillation apparatus in the
school/college laboratory but on
an industrial scale!
o In an oil refinery the fractionating
columns are very tall with huge
surface area to give the best
chance of separating the dozens
of hydrocarbons in the crude oil
(see diagram on the left.
 This is a continuous process (not a
batch process). The fractionating
column works continuously with
heated–vapourised crude oil piped in at
the bottom and the various fractions
condensed and constantly tapped off
from various levels, each with a
different condensation temperature
 Up the fractioning column the
temperature gradually decreases
(temperature gradient), so the highest
boiling (least volatile) molecules tend to
be at the bottom and the lowest boiling
(most volatile) hydrocarbons go to the
top. The rest of the hydrocarbon
molecules then condense out in narrow
temperature range i.e. the different
fractions condense out in a gradual way
from top to bottom depending on their
boiling point.
 In other words the most volatile
fraction, i.e. the molecules with the
lowest boiling points (shortest
hydrocarbon molecules), boil or
evaporate off first and go higher up the
column and condense out at the higher
levels in the fractionating column at the
lowest temperature.
 The higher the boiling point (the higher
the condensation point) the lower down
the column the hydrocarbon condenses.
 So all of the hydrocarbon molecules
separate out according to their
boiling/condensation point so that the
highest boiling fraction, i.e. the less
volatile molecules with higher boiling
points (longest hydrocarbon
molecules), tend to condense more
easily lower down the column, albeit at
the higher temperatures.
 The process is perhaps more correctly
called fractional condensation but it is
still referred to as fractional distillation.
 The bigger the molecule, the greater
the intermolecular attractive forces
between the molecules, so the higher
the boiling point or condensation
point (see physical property trends).
o This is an important rule to know
since the intermolecular forces
(intermolecular bonding) affect
the physical properties including
melting point and viscosity too,
and this has a bearing on how
each fraction is used, see below.
 Note: The strong covalent chemical
bonds like C–C or C–H within the
molecules are not broken in the
process, only the intermolecular
bonding force of attraction between the
molecules is weakened to allow the
initial evaporation or boiling.
 The fractions are then further
processed to produce fuels and
chemical feedstock for the
petrochemical industry.
 These include fuels such as liquified
petroleum gas, petrol, diesel oil,
kerosene, heavy fuel oil which are all
non-renewable fossil fuels, as is
methane from natural gas.
 From the chemical feedstock and
petrochemical industry we produce
many useful materials on which our
modern life depends e.g. solvents,
lubricants, medicines, polymers,
detergents etc.
 The fractions are listed below with the
approximate boiling point ranges and
approximate number of carbon atoms in
the molecule.