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From Oil to Fuel: How Gasoline Makes It to Your Gas Tank

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Gasoline, love it or hate it - you've used it sometime in your life. Getting gasoline from its original oil state to your car takes a lot more than just those fuel trucks you see on the highway. Here's a brief outline of how oil is converted to gasoline and then delivered to your local gas station.


Oil and natural gas originates in the remains of ocean plants and fossils that lived millions of years ago. After years and years of layers of sediment growth on these remains, and the addition of heat and pressure, the remains changed into oil and natural gas. With the passing of time, the oil and natural gas become trapped in reservoir rocks.

Land-based drilling and offshore platform production rigs are two ways oil is found. The land-based drilling is the more common used. It drills deep down in an area for rock samples, the rock samples are analyzed to see if that area contains oil or not. If it is, oil is then excavated from the area and transported to a refinery.


The top countries producing oil is Nigeria, United States, Russia and Kuwait. The most common way to transport oil from these countries to refineries is by large ships (tankers). But supertankers (much larger ships) must first transfer their oil to smaller tankers to carry into port or transfer their oil to offshore oil ports which will then pump the oil to the refineries by pipeline. If the oil does not need to cross waters to get to the refinery, then it is transported by pipeline to the refinery.

Distillation Column

Distillation Column


Distillation is the process of converting oil into a liquid fuel. The hydrocarbon molecules in the oil is heated into a vapor and then transferred into a distillation column. Substances in vapor condense to a liquid form once it reaches its boiling point at certain heights. These heights are lined with trays to collect the liquids. Once this is done, the oil has separated into various liquid fuels.

The liquid fuel is transferred from the distillation column to other areas in the refinery that will add various chemicals to the liquid fuel to convert it into a marketable product (i.e. gasoline). There are three different ways to get this done:

  • Cracking: the process in which relatively heavy hydrocarbons (the liquid fuel) are broken up by heat into lighter products. Two forms of cracking include: Thermal - breaks down hydrocarbons using heat and pressure; and Catalytic - uses a catalyst, such as aluminum, to break down hydrocarbons
  • Unification: combines smaller hydrocarbons with larger ones
  • Alteration: rearranges the molecules of one hydrocarbon to create another

The final step in the conversion process is the removal of impurities (i.e. tar, sulfur) by using chemicals and drying agents. Once this is completed, the liquid fuel is cooled and is prepped for delivery.




There are three main ways the fuel products are transported to the terminals (a bulk storage and distribution facility warehousing the fuel) while it waits for further transportation to retailers (i.e. gas stations) or end users (i.e. county uses such as school buses). The three main ways are by barge and vessel to ports with terminals or bulk storage facilities, pumped through pipelines from refineries to end users or other terminals, and by railcar from refineries to terminals, bulk facilities, and transloading stations (a facility where cargo is transferred between railcars, trucks, or tankers).

Once the refined fuel is received, it’s deposited into a terminal owned by a terminal operator. A terminal operator owns the terminals but leases them out to terminal suppliers (companies that own the fuel i.e. Exxon). A carrier removes the fuel from the terminals under instruction of the terminal suppliers and delivers it to the retail gas station (or any other destination) where you pump your gasoline.


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