7 Surprising Uses of Oil

oil sheen from BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill left a sheen of petroleum on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. Now, a new study finds that oil-eating microbes chowed down on this unlikely feast
(Image: © Luke McKay, University of Georgia)

There's oil in there

Being green for the sake of being green, while admirable, will not necessarily change attitudes about green products.

Being green for the sake of being green, while admirable, will not necessarily change attitudes about green products.
(Image credit: Dreamstime)

Petroleum does more than just provide gasoline for cars and jet fuel for airliners. Products and byproducts of petroleum end up in items used daily around the world — billions of pounds of polyethylene plastic alone go toward making plastic bags, food containers, hula hoops and other consumer products. But here are a few petroleum-derived items found in and around the modern-day home that may surprise you.

Aspirin

This image of aspirin crystals was created using pure aspirin powder melted on a microscope slide. Once it is liquid, a thin slip is slid over the top of the aspirin, which forms these intriguing circular shapes. Vivid colors are created by the use of cro

This image of aspirin crystals was created using pure aspirin powder melted on a microscope slide. Once it is liquid, a thin slip is slid over the top of the aspirin, which forms these intriguing circular shapes. Vivid colors are created by the use of crossed polarizing filters on the light microscope. This image received an award from the Wellcome Trust, as part of the annual Wellcome Image Awards, for its ability to communicate the wonder and fascination of science.
(Image credit: Spike Walker, Wellcome Images)

Aspirin has proven itself one of the safest and most reliable medications over the past decades. People swallow billions of tablets per year for headaches, fever and as a preventative against heart conditions or stroke. The acetylsalicylic acid in aspirin (crystals of the compound shown here) shares the pain-relief properties of the chemical salicin in willow bark. Yet most aspirin manufacturing begins with benzene, a hydrocarbon that is typically derived from petroleum products.

Pantyhose

(Image credit: Dreamstime)

Call them leggings, hosiery, tights or whatever you like. Millions of modern women wear nylon pantyhose for both comfort and fashion, just as women decades ago latched on to the nylon stockings that became popular during World War II.

They may not pause to consider that nylon represents a petroleum-derived thermoplastic invented in 1935 by Wallace Carothers, a chemist working at the DuPont company. Today, nylons help make products ranging from dish scrubbers to parachutes.

Crayons

made

Oil has helped make many fond childhood memories of drawing inside a classroom or a home. Each and every crayon in a child's Crayola box consists of paraffin wax, a waxy solid made from petroleum. Paraffin wax also happens to help make candles, and may even provide the polish on an apple or the glossiness of chocolate.

Gum

Chewing sugar-free gum might help you eat less. But to use this as a diet strategy would be to blow the findings out of proportion. Image

Chewing sugar-free gum might help you eat less. But to use this as a diet strategy would be to blow the findings out of proportion. Image
(Image credit: Dreamstime)

People who enjoy the snap and long-lasting texture of their chewing gum can give a nod of thanks to petroleum-derived polymers. Today's gum bases can consist of both natural latexes and petroleum products such as polyethylene and paraffin wax, which also means most gums are non-biodegradable. But the first chewing gums typically relied upon the natural latex known as chicle — still the gum base of choice for some upscale gum brands and certain regional markets.

(On a side note, gum-chewing may be more than a pastime, as research detailed in the October/November 2011 issue of the journal Appetite suggests chewing gum before a test may improve performance.)

Wrinkle-Resistant Clothes

business men

Credit: Yuri Arcurs | Dreamstime.com

Cotton may represent the fabric of our lives, but polyester pants, shirts and other clothing items bring the benefits of wrinkle resistance, durability and shrugging off stains. Those special properties come courtesy of polyester's origin at the oil refinery, where several petroleum products are created to eventually form the synthetic material that helps clothe millions of people. But that's not all bad, because polyester recycling can produce new, high-quality polyester fiber.

Solar Panels

On 140 acres of unused Nellis land, 70,000 solar panels await activation as the first third of the solar photovoltaic array gets commissioned Oct. 12 with the other 66 percent of the panels scheduled for activation in the next two months.

On 140 acres of unused Nellis land, 70,000 solar panels await activation as the first third of the solar photovoltaic array gets commissioned Oct. 12 with the other 66 percent of the panels scheduled for activation in the next two months.
(Image credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Nadine Y. Barclay)

Solar panels may help homeowners and businesses usher in renewable energy by harnessing the power of sunlight, but most panels still rely upon petroleum-based resins and plastic components in their photovoltaic cells. That could eventually change as companies have begun rolling out new bio-resins and bioplastics that could replace the petroleum-based components.

Lipstick

Red lipstick on waitress meant more tips in a study.

Red lipstick on waitress meant more tips in a study.

Humans have applied natural cosmetics on their lips, eyes and faces for centuries, but most of today's lipsticks and eye liners derive their visually-pleasing magic from petroleum products or byproducts such as crylates, coal tar colorants, and propylene glycol. Given that foundation, it's little surprise that many women also turn to the petroleum product known as Vaseline (petroleum jelly) as a simple eyeliner remover or base for lipstick.