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Living without oil
Living without oil

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1 Introducing oil

Over the last 100 years or so, humanity has come to rely increasingly on oil products. Oil is so central to modern life that it's no exaggeration to say that, at the moment, modern economies could not operate without vast supplies of crude oil.

  • From your general knowledge, what are the two major uses of oil in the modern world and why do we need to consider 'living without oil'?

  • The two major uses of oil are: (i) to produce fuels for transporting people and goods, and (ii) as the raw material needed to manufacture a huge variety of modern materials. Oil may need to be replaced because the supplies of oil are limited and there are concerns that it will run out. Additionally, burning oil products as fuel produces carbon dioxide and so contributes to anthropogenic ('human-made') global warming.

The central contention of the Living without oil course is that developing alternatives to oil is an essential and urgent task for humanity. Those alternatives will necessarily have to involve both new sources of fuel and new technologies for transport, and new ways to produce modern materials.

So in order to set the scene, this course will address in more detail the two questions: why is oil important, and why do we need to replace it?

A note about terminology

Chemists may argue that this course should have a more precise title! The term 'oil' can have a number of related meanings - in general the term can be used to refer to any thick liquid that doesn't mix with water. In everyday language, the term 'oil' is used to refer to petroleum (crude oil), which is indeed a thick liquid that doesn't mix with water. Chemists sometimes refer to crude oil as 'mineral oil' in order to distinguish it from oils derived from plants or other sources. In this course the term 'oil' will be used in its everyday sense - meaning petroleum (crude oil).