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How Oil Becomes Oil

Petroleum (literally rock oil, from the Greek petra- for rock and Latin -oleum for oil) is a general term used to refer to all forms of oil and natural gas that is mined from the earth. What most people concern themselves with is crude oil, the liquid mixture of naturally occurring hydrocarbons, and natural gas, which is a gaseous mixture of naturally occurring hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are complex molecules that are formed from long strings of hydrogen and carbon, such as propane (C3H8) or butane (C4H10).

Petroleum is the final product that we get out of the ground. But how does it get there? Petroleum begins as living animals, microscopic organisms (like diatoms or plankton) that live in the oceans. When these organisms die, their bodies sink and collect on the ocean floor. These organisms live all over the oceans and their bodies fall and collect on the ocean bottoms all over the world. When the organic matter becomes buried and begin to decompose, they are referred to as kerogen. Despite the apparent abundance of dead organisms raining down on the ocean bottoms, there are specific conditions that must be met for these organisms to be transformed into petroleum.


First, the area that the kerogen collects must be a restricted basin, a depression where sediment can accumulate and where there is poor water circulation. When the oxygen is gone, the decomposition stops and the remaining matter are preserved. The kerogen must be buried under sediment where it will be altered through high temperatures and high pressures. As the heat and pressure breaks down the kerogen, the hydrocarbon chains are freed. Long chains of hydrocarbon are oil; shorter chains are gas, generally methane (CH4) and condensates such as ethane, propane and butane. As the heat and pressure continues, the longer chains will continue to break into shorter chains. If the process continues long enough, all that will remain will be methane.


Compaction of the sediment, and the expansion of the kerogen as it is transformed into petroleum cause it to be forced out of the rock it was created in (the source rock) and into nearby sediments. If these sediments are porous enough (have microscopic holes) and permeable enough (allowing for the flow of liquids), then the petroleum will migrate through the rock. Since gas and oil are lighter than water, they can travel through water-saturated rock. Eventually the oil will stop migrating as it meets rock that is not porous or permeable, and will collect in a trap. It is these petroleum traps that geologists search for and that the oil companies drill into to recover the oil.


Despite the simplicity, there are several conditions that must occur, otherwise, no oil will be made.

First, there needs to be a source rock that contains the organic matter to be converted into petroleum. This source rock is generally shale or other mudstones. There must be a reservoir rock, usually sandstone or limestone that is porous and permeable where the oil can be stored and transported. There needs to be a trap, something that is non-porous and non-permeable that will hold the petroleum in the reservoir and prevent it from migrating further. Finally, there needs to be enough heat and pressure to sufficiently cook the oil and gas out of the kerogen. If anyone of these conditions is not met, then petroleum cannot be formed.


The important step in the process is the trap. Something needs to block or trap the petroleum so it will accumulate into a large enough deposit for geologists to be able to locate it. Petroleum traps come in several varieties, in various sizes and can be made through structural processes (like folds and faults), or by sedimentary processes.


Structural traps work by folding or breaking the reservoir rock and placing it adjacent to an impermeable rock layer, like shale. There are three types of structural traps. One of the most common is a trap from the folding of the rocks. Anticlines bend the reservoir rock and create a pocket at the apex of the foldwhere the petroleum cannot migrate. Normal and thrust faults can result in petroleum traps by breaking the reservoir rock and moving it so that it is against an impermeable rock layer.


The other way to trap petroleum is through stratigraphic traps. The diagram shows five different types of stratigraphic traps. The differences between these and structural traps is that these traps occur by the nature of how the sediment was deposited and not whether it was broken or folded. The first two, sandstone lensesand sandstone pinch-outs, are the result of the changes in deposition of the sediment. Thick layers of mud are covered by thinner layers of sand from migrating shoreline, or by the sand deposited by large rivers. As sea level changes or rivers migrate, the different sand and mud layers areinterwoven creating lenses or pinch-outs. These sand layers allow the petroleum to accumulate and the mudrock layers trap the petroleum.


Unconformities can create traps by burying truncatedsandstone or limestone layers with layers of mudstone.

Finally, salt domes can push up through buried sediment and deform the overlying layers of rock. This causes folds and fractures to form in the rock, trapping the oil salt domes are the primary places where the oil is found.


(Author: Geoff Habiqer Published on: September 3, 2001)

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