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Gasoline and Petroleum

Origins of the Words Used to Describe Everyday Motor Fuel

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The word gasoline was first used as a brand name for the relatively new petroleum distillate in the late 1800s (it wasn't really a motor fuel just yet). A little known fact is that it was initially used as a topical medicinal—to rid folks of head lice. Gasoline was actually a brand in the same way that Vaseline is a brand name for petroleum jelly. And while gasoline as a word was never officially registered as a trademark, it isn't really a gas either (not in the chemical sense anyway)—it’s a liquid, not a vapor. Methane (pretty much natural gas) is true gas, no liquid involved. However, the word gas has become synonymous with fuel and will ever be a part of our vernacular until the day it gets replaced by a new, better, cheaper alternative fuel.

And how about petroleum? The word petroleum comes from the Greek roots "petra," meaning rock, and "oleum," meaning oil. In other words, petroleum is "rock oil." While we’ve been taught that gasoline and diesel comes from dead dinosaurs and that's why we call them fossil fuels, they’re not really. They are actually rock fuels.

According to chemist Beverly Eschberger, plants and animals did die off and lay in heaps to decompose over hundreds of thousands of years. But it was the small microorganisms in those dead bodies that used up available oxygen in those heaps so that only partial decomposition could occur before new layers of material and dirt fell upon them. It was this constant cycle of partial decomposition and new smothering layers that caused the very deepest layers to compress under severe weight and pressure. The hydrogen and carbon in that once living tissue was forced together into long chains of hydrocarbons. As the sediment and pressure kept building, crude oil and natural gas hydrocarbons would squeeze out and percolate through the porous and permeable sand and rocks above. The decomposition process is one of many thousands of years and stages in the breakdown of matter, and many intermediary steps of physical and chemical change occur during the conversion of biological matter into oil.

Hence, gasoline and petroleum—two simple words that we use or hear in the news practically everyday. While we may take for granted that we know their meaning, there’s certainly more there than first meets the eye.

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