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The nature of gasoline explained


Gasoline is a volatile mix of liquid hydrocarbons, originally distilled from crude oil in a so-called fractionating tower. Crude oil is heated to evaporate it from a pan at the bottom, and the vapor rises to condense into progressively higher pans kept at various temperature levels. Gases such as ethane and propane are taken off at the top. Then come successively less volatile products such as gasoline, kerosene, heating oil, diesel fuel, and lube oils.


Gasoline is not a pure substance but consists of a mixture of more than 100 hydrocarbon species over a specified range of volatility. Gasoline, because it evaporates easily to form combustible mixtures with air, was originally just a headache for refiners eager to sell lamp oil and lubricants. For some years after 1860 it was therefore either run into rivers or “flared off” at the refinery as not only useless but dangerous.

When the developers of the internal-combustion engine needed a fuel that would set their early, slow-turning industrial engines free of city gas mains (originally built for gas lighting), gasoline proved ideal. Being a liquid at room temperature, it could be carried in tanks, yet when mixed with air it evaporated promptly and the resulting gasoline-air mixture could be ignited by a spark over a range of mixture strengths. Chuff, said the IC engine. Chuff-chuff-chuff. Very quickly, cars, trucks, and aircraft became the essential vehicles of the 20th century.

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