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  • Writer's pictureSarah Whiteford

What's in a barrel of oil?

It's Fun Fact Friday and today we are taking a look at a barrel of oil! Why do we measure oil in barrels? Where did the abbreviation bbl come from? What kind of products can we get from crude oil? We break it down by the barrel in today's Fun Fact Friday.

Gasoline might power your car and diesel might power your truck, but did you know that a single barrel of crude oil can provide gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, asphalt, and plastic? Today we’re talking about the world’s most valuable fossil fuel, and the everyday products into which it is turned. Let’s start with the size of that barrel of oil: the standard oil barrel is 42 gallons, but we get about 45 gallons of petroleum products from one barrel. This increase in yield is called the processing gain, meaning it’s denser than some of the products it’s used to make. This is an average gain, as oil can be “light” or “heavy” which is the viscosity, or thickness of the oil. It can also be “sweet” or “sour”, containing less sulfur (sweet) or more (sour). These factors affect the treatment methods and effort that goes into making the end products.

Does oil actually come in barrels?

It used to! In 1866, it was decided a standard 42 gallon barrel would be used for oil, and so shipments were measured in barrels. As time went on, oil was carried on wagons and boats, then by ships, trucks, and pipelines. Oil is moved in massive quantities today, and barrels are still a standard use of measurement, although countries use larger quantities of measurement like million barrels per day (mmbd).

Image Credit: American Oil & Gas Historical Society

What do we actually get from that 42 gallons of crude oil?

Here’s a great list from Visual Capitalist of exactly what comes from the average barrel of oil:

  • “Enough gasoline to drive a medium-sized car over 450km (280 miles).

  • Enough distillate fuel to drive a large truck for almost 65km (40 miles). If jet fuel fraction is included, that same truck can run nearly 80km (50 miles).

  • Nearly 70 kWh of electricity at a power plant generated by residual fuel.

  • About 1.8 kg (4 lbs) of charcoal briquettes.

  • Enough propane to fill 12 small (14.1 ounce) cylinders for home, camping or workshop use.

  • Asphalt to make about 3.8 L (one gallon) of tar for patching roofs or streets.

  • Lubricants to make about a 0.95 L (one quart) of motor oil.

  • Wax for 170 birthday candles or 27 wax crayons.

  • 39 polyester shirts.”

ConocoPhillips lists some common items you might be surprised to find contain petroleum, like: golf balls, antihistamines, shampoo, eyeglasses, shaving cream, aspirin and even guitar strings. But let’s stick with the primary products, shown by the infographic below.

Image Credit: Visual Capitalist


Gasoline is usually about 20 gallons of the 45 gallons of refined product, or 45% of the barrel. The main function of gasoline is as a power source for passenger vehicles. Blending terminals blend gasoline with ethanol and additives like the extras in Shell V-Power may be added. Different categories of gasoline are also created like Regular, Midgrade, and Premium. The wide variety of additives and variants is one of the reasons oil refineries don’t fully process these products, and they are sent out to be finished depending on the specific need.

Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD) & Heating Oil

Ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD) and heating oil are high on the list at 12 gallons total, about 25%. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued emissions control technologies in 2006, requiring conversion to ULSD. Diesel fuel like this is primarily used for the massive trucking industry. ULSD itself makes up 11 gallons of the barrel’s output and is also sent for blending with biodiesel and other chemicals. Why is heating oil included here with only 1 gallon? Heating oil has an identical chemical structure to ultra-low sulfur diesel and is used to heat buildings, especially in the Northeast United States. Prices for the two are basically interchangeable.

Kerosene and Jet Fuel

According to Breakthrough, “Kerosene is a light petroleum distillate commonly used as fuel in heaters, lamps, cooking stoves, and water heaters. Multiple grades of kerosene exist, though specifications vary depending on means of utilization.” Kerosene-type jet fuel is used in many modern jet and aircraft engines including commercial and military. These fuels are about 4 gallons or 9% of a barrel.

Hydrocarbon Gas Liquids and Residual Fuel

About 2 gallons or 4% of a barrel of crude is hydrocarbon gas liquids. This includes ethane, propane, butane, and natural gas. HGLs can be turned into plastic, rubber, heating fuels, or blending agents for other products. Residual fuel is leftover after the HGL has been refined out (only about 1 gallon or 2% of the barrel). Residuals can be used for power plants, electric power generation, or bunker fuels in ships.

Other Products

This is a big “other” section. Asphalt, waxes, naphtha, lubricants, and a lot of other products are the last 13% of the remaining barrel of crude oil. These 6 gallons go to many, many products and have a wide range of uses from roads to candles.

Image Credit: Medium

The refining process produces all of the products above, from the fuel we burn to the plastic with which our phones are made. It’s amazing how many products come from just one barrel of oil, and how many barrels of oil we use every day. One last fun fact we’ll leave you with: there’s a myth that the abbreviation for barrel, bbl originally stood for “Blue Barrel”, the color of the barrels of the Standard Oil Company. It’s also believed that the “bb” was for two extra gallons added in case of spillage. As you might imagine, spilling 2 gallons of every barrel of oil would cause serious problems! The abbreviation bbl actually came from prior to 1859 and the start of the oil industry, and its origins are unknown. Shipping by barrel was common for all types of goods, and bbl was simply the shorthand that was commonly used.

Happy Fun Fact Friday!


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