New technology and energy production have been fundamental staples for improving our quality of life, creating jobs and expanding a vibrant U.S. and global economy. Fossil resources like crude oil and natural gas have been essential for accomplishing this. Main uses have been to fuel the production of electricity, generate heat for our comfort and manufacturing, and supply energy for transportation. Petroleum and natural gas also produce many important precursors for a multitude of products and materials that also have transformed our world. Lesser known is that our need for these materials is growing faster than our need for fuel.
An emerging demand for precursors used to produce carbon-based substances like carbon fiber, carbon nanotubes and graphene is one reason why. These materials are composed entirely of carbon. Resources containing high amounts of carbon are needed for their production. Crude oil and natural gas are well suited for that purpose and we show that a new era of uses for these important resources is evolving.
Why the interest in carbon-based materials? They are very strong, very light, and have a wide range of uncommon and extraordinary physical properties. The synthesis of these materials is rapidly gaining importance as one of the most exciting and promising innovations ever developed by man. While various sources for producing carbon-based materials have been identified, petroleum or crude oil is proving to be both suitable and preferred.
In this review paper, we (i) give examples of the numerous incredible new carbon-based products and materials that are advancing and growing, (ii) briefly discuss known processes used to make the needed material precursors from petroleum, (iii) show evidence that refinery yields are shifting from fuels to materials, and (iv) cite exciting and forward looking research programs now underway. Also discussed is why lower API gravity, or higher density petroleum known as heavy oil, could be a preferred source of carbon-based material precursors. The discussion that follows gives ample reason to step back and reassess the views expressed by some on the continued importance of fossil resources and their emerging new uses in today's world.