Chemistry Question #2361

Satnam, a 28 year old male from Calgary asks on November 11, 2004,

My question: How will they produce plastics, tires, roads or anything that is made from oil, once oil runs out?

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The answer

Barry Shell answered on November 16, 2004

You have to remember that oil has only been around for a very short time. My grandfather had a horse, not a car. That was only about 70 years ago. Roads were made of cement, gravel, dirt, wood, etc. Tires have only existed for about 70 or 80 years as well. Tires are made mostly of rubber not oil. Rubber comes from trees--it's tree sap. Wheels used to be made of wood and metal--for thousands of years. Plastics are a very very recent invention, beginning to come into common use only in the 1960s and not really blossoming until the 1980s. Before that there were only a few plastics known, such as nylon, melamine and bakelite, and even they have only existed since around World War I. The world and humans did very well for thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years without oil or plastics. And we could do it again.

There's still an awful lot of oil, and trillions of tons of coal--way more coal than oil, and under great temperature and pressure you can turn coal into oil. The Nazi's figured out how to do this in World War II.

Also, we now have the technology to create plastics with other raw materials. There are many alternatives to oil for polymers--the building blocks of plastics. Wood yields cellulose that can be made into plastics such as rayon. Some plastics are now made from corn and potatoes. Many oil crops can be grown such as canola, sunflower, palm, olive, etc. and all these can be chemically turned into plastics. It's a bit more expensive than using oil, but it's possible.

However, you have touched on a very good point. I personally have felt for many years that we should slow down the rate of burning oil, not so much to slow global warming, which is probably a consequence of the burning of oil and other fossil fuels, but for the reason you mention: oil is good for making things such as plastics and other useful chemicals. Oil has some unique uses so we should conserve it and cherish it for those special purposes, instead of just burning it. To me, the way we treat oil now is similar to taking all the trees and burning them, and not using them for their other excellent purposes such as making houses and furniture. However, many societies in the past, and even now, are burning all the trees available and so they have to make their houses out of stone. Something analagous to this could happen to humanity in a a few more generations if we simply burn all the oil.

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