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Oil: Classroom Activities

The Uses and Refinement of Petroleum


To learn about the many different products made from petroleum.

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Background Information

Petroleum provides fuel to run our vehicles, cook our food, heat our homes, and generate electricity. It is also used in plastics, medicines, food items, and many other products. We often use oil products as synthetic alternatives to natural materials such as synthetic rubber, and detergent instead of soap. Oil also gives us entirely new, unique materials such as nylon and polyester.

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Activity Overview

Students examine a display of petroleum products and discuss the numerous ways they use petroleum every day. They think about how we can get materials such as plastics, from crude oil. Students observe the heating of milk and vinegar and the formation of curds and whey as a model for the fractionation of oil by heating.

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Materials and Equipment

Display of petroleum products (for example, petroleum jelly, plastic items, cosmetics, synthetic rubber, nylon, tennis shoes, iPod), 400 ml 2-percent milk, 100 ml white vinegar, 1 liter Pyrex beaker, spoon or stirring rod, hot plate, pot holder or beaker tongs

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  1. Ask students to examine a display of products made from petroleum. You can also include some things that are not made from petroleum. Ask students to identify those that are petroleum based. Ask them how petroleum is made into other things.
    Answers will vary. Students may be surprised by the variety of things that are made from petroleum.
  2. Discuss with students the following:
    1. What are some products made from milk?
    2. What must happen to the milk to get these products?
      Curds, whey, yogurt and cheese are all made from milk. These products require the separation of different parts of the milk. The process of refining oil involves separating its different products. Students may even remark that a café latte is made from milk as well. Upon heating, the hot milk undergoes physical changes to first form foam and then a skin upon cooling.
  3. Explain to students that you are going to use milk as a model for crude oil
    1. a) Turn on a hot plate in a place where all students can see.
    2. b) Stir together milk and vinegar in a beaker over gentle heat until the substances have separated into curds (solids) and whey (liquid).
  4. Ask students to describe their observations. Have them explain what you had to do to the milk and vinegar mixture to separate it into curds and whey.
    Mixing and heating are the two key processes.
  5. Ask students how this experiment is similar to the separation of crude oil into usable parts.
    Crude oil must be heated to separate into different substances before it can be made into products.
  6. Have students work in small groups to make lists of all the petroleum-based products, appliances, and conveniences they use on a daily basis.
    Answers will vary, but should include, fuels, lubricants, plastics, polyester clothing, medicine, paints, etc.
  7. Have students make another list of the 10 most important petroleum-based products. Then have them separate this into two lists: necessities and luxuries.
    Answers will vary. Students should recognize that the use of petroleum for fuels, lubricants, medicines, and plastics are especially important.
  8. Ask groups to share their lists and discuss the following:
    1. If you didn't have these products, how would your life change?
      Student's lives would not be as easy. Some student's might remark that alternatives would eventually be found.
    2. What were these products made from before we had petroleum products?
      Many of the products would not exist. Students should consider the previous use of natural materials such as wood, processed metals, natural oils, and products from animals

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