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Extreme Oil
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The Journey The History The Science

Lesson Plan 2: Exploring the Science of Oil

Building Background:

1. Ask students the question what function crude oil serves in our life. Is it something that is really necessary in life? What if it was not available, how would our lives differ? (Students answers will vary). Is oil unlimited or a renewable source? (Students answers will vary between two basic responses of it being renewable and not being renewable). Explain the difference between renewable and nonrenewable sources. Renewable sources are items present in the environment that are constantly replenished within a relatively short period of time (i.e. water, air etc.) The nonrenewable sources would include crude oil, coal and wood. They are considered nonrenewable sources since the amount of time to replace them would exceed one's lifetime; therefore these energy sources are greater in demand and more precious in value.

2. Give the students a perspective of how much crude oil is consumed considering it is a nonrenewable source. Instruct the students that the world uses approximately 75-80 million barrels of oil per day; each person, on average, consumes 3 gallons daily and our dependency on the oil industry is becoming increasingly more important to our lifestyle. Ask the students what would happen if sources were not replenished at the same rate that oil is being consumed. (The response is that our crude oil stores would be depleted). Ask the students why we need crude oil if there is gasoline available. (This is a trick question. The answer is that gasoline would not exist without crude oil being refined into gasoline). Considering oil helps to maintain our quality of life, ask the students if they know how oil is found or how it is processed. (Students answers will vary). Students may have some understanding of how oil is found or produced yet proceed to the next activity, which will further define their understanding.

3. Explain to the students they will watch two different video clips. Each portion of the tape will be viewed two times. The students will watch the video the first time without sound in attempts to simply focus on the activity and equipment viewed on the screen. The second time the video will be viewed with the sound on. This will offer further clarification of their thoughts from the previous viewing. The first clip takes place in Alaska. Give all students a handout entitled, Extreme Oil- How is it Produced.

4. Insert Extreme Oil Episode 3 " The Wilderness" into the VCR. Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to best describe what is happening with regards to extracting oil (i.e. name of the equipment used or what is happening in the video clip). Have them write their thoughts on the handout. PLAY the video when you see car driving toward the camera with a sign in the background saying, "Prudhoe Bay Hotel." The audio states "In Prudhoe Bay, home to one of the biggest oil fields in the USÍ" STOP the tape when you see the cameraman filming a man flying a prop plane over oil fields. After viewing the video the first time, ask students to share their responses. Teacher should write their ideas on the board. (Student responses may include oil refineries, dirt roads, many large trucks, rows of pipeline, and cold desolate landscape). Students may add to their responses on the handout based on others student's interpretations. Ask the students to describe how producing oil alters the environment. (Students may state that it creates erosion, it pollutes water sources, it provides work for men who normally do not make a decent living, and animals may lose their homes for existence). Provide the students with the same FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, again asking them to describe what is happening with regards to extracting oil. Write any names of equipment used or events that take place in processing oil. REWIND tape back to the beginning of the segment. PLAY the video while turning up the audio STOP the tape in the same place as before. (Student responses will be modified since they were allowed to hear the audio on the tape.) Check for student comprehension after hearing the audio along with the visual portion of the tape. Write the student's responses on the board.

5. Explain to the students that crude oil is not the only source of nonrenewable energy; coal is another source. Since the nonrenewable sources are limited, man has had to seek out other forms energy capable of serving our needs. Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to describe how coal mining differs from actual extraction of crude oil. Students should write their answers on the handout. The video will be viewed in a similar manner as before; sound off for the first viewing then audio turned on the second viewing. FAST-FORWARD the tape to the point where the screen shows green landscape filled with trees as seen from an aerial view. PLAY tape. STOP the video when the screen shows a view of a city skyline displaying a sharp-spire building in the background. The audio states," Despite the environment impact 50 billion dollar new sands development is on the drawing board." Ask the students to share their thoughts with the class. REWIND video back to the starting point and press PLAY turning up the audio. Check for students comprehension and/or changes from their previous thoughts. (Student responses should include coal is more labor intensive and ecologically more damaging. It can only be transported via truck or train and not by pipeline. It does not damage the environment as much when it is spilled unlike crude oil. It requires equipment that dredges coal from various levels of earth.) The tape begins to describe how crude oil and coal is extracted from earth but let us explore more details about what specific items are necessary to extract and produce various byproducts of these nonrenewable resources.

1. Tell your students that extracting and processing oil is not easy to produce. The amount of time and technology required to produce one barrel of oil determines it overall value. The video assisted our understanding how this process occurs. Instruct the students that they will now have an opportunity to take a virtual tour of a land-based and an offshore oil refinery. Give each student a handout entitled, "Digging For Crude"

2. Have the students pair up and log on to the Virtual Tour of British Oil Refineries web site at Students should begin with the virtual tour of the land-based oil refinery or the "Fawley Tour." This site uses panorama photos of the refinery. You will see extra information in the smaller screen. You can find out more by opening the InfoBank bank button. Use the buttons on the screen to find your way around and to get help.

3. Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them describe different components of an oil refinery and how it is refined using fractional distillation. Instruct the students they have approximately 15 minutes to find and write down the information. Check for student comprehension before proceeding.

4. Once students have completed the land-based oil refinery, instruct them to return to the home page of the website and click on the "Captain's Tour." The students will be able to tour an offshore rig and the key equipment used to drill for oil. Fill in the information found on the handout. Give students another 15 minutes to complete this part of the activity. Check for student comprehension.

5. Using the information, ask the students to compare the two methods of drilling for oil. What are some of the main differences between the two oil rigs? (Student responses may include:)
  • The offshore rig digs through bedrock and forces the rock to the surface. The land-based rig does not have to pull the rock away in the same manner.

  • Wells on the offshore rig are initially drilled straight down then it branches off horizontally to create new digging sites.

  • Drilling offshore includes monitoring of temperature and pressure of the water while the drilling occurs.

  • Crude oil from the sea is often mixed with sand, rock and salt water and is then piped to the mainland to be refined into byproducts. Crude oil obtained on land is typically processed within the area of extraction.
6. Ask the students to describe how both operations are similar in processing. Have one student write answers on the board for others to view. (Student responses might include: )
  • The same type hydrocarbons are produced. The simplified hydrocarbons would include methane, ethane, propane, ethene, and butene. More complex byproducts such as petrol, grease, bitumen, plastic, nylon, polyester, washing powders and farming chemicals are produced from the hydrocarbons.

  • Both types of oil refineries process the crude oil by using a method called fractional distillation.

  • Both types of oil refineries transport by pipeline.

  • Both types of oil extraction facilities remove crude oil by pipes deep within the ground.
Ask the students why fractional distillation is such an important component in processing crude oil. What if it was not utilized? (Student responses would include that crude oil would remain in a useless form unless processed into various products. Gasoline would be produced.) In brief, have one or more students briefly explain their understanding what occurs in the process. (Student responses would include that fractional distillation is a method that different components of crude oil are separated at different temperatures; extreme heat is necessary to separate the products; this is the only method used to create the products.) With time permitting, students may log onto another web site (, which offers a comprehensive presentation about fractional distillation.

Culminating Activity:

1. Knowing that crude oil is not used to its capacity unless it is processed by fractional distillation, it is even more crucial to gather a greater appreciation of what chemists have to work with when processing oil. Explain to the students that they will now have the opportunity to experience (on a much less volatile scale) how difficult it is to process fluids using fractional distillation.

2. Give each pair of students a laboratory sheet entitled, Crude Extraction. The situation is such that all the students are competing against each other to distill the maximum amount of fluid from a crude extraction. The goal is to set up the apparatus in such a way to maximize the production of water from one of the following fluids: cranberry juice, orange juice, apple juice, or coke. The winner will be determined by the maximum amount of grams of water extracted.

3. For the sake of simplicity, the instructor may set up a simple setup to give the students a starting point on how to set the equipment up.

4. Do not give the students any chemicals, which may react with the aluminum cans. Suggestions of chemicals to not use are mentioned under materials in the beginning of the lesson. Allow the students 10-15 minutes to setup the apparatus. Then at the same time, instruct the students to turn on the Bunsen burners and run the distillation process for no more than 10 minutes (the importance is to ensure all students distill the same amount of time.)

5. At the end of the ten-minute period, students should bring their flask of water to the teacher to be weighed. The pair of students with the maximum amount of water collected should be deemed the "Outstanding Chemists." Ask the students what modifications were helpful in extracting more water from their respective solutions. (Students may state that sealing the condensing tube with aluminum foil or masking tape was helpful. Others may state that the seal between the mouth of the can and the collection bottle could be fitted with corks or stoppers to ensure less water escaping.) Ask the students to compare the color of the starting material with that of the distillate. How are the colors different? (Students may respond that it is a more dilute version of the original or that it is completely clear unlike the original.) Ask the students to relate their experimental setup to the distillation process for crude oil. Are their any similarities? Differences? (Students answers will vary. Some will respond the crude oil fractional distillation process involves a higher degree of heat and more products to remove. It can become complicated due to the volatile nature of the materials heated. Many safety procedures would need to be established for the processing of crude oil using this method. Their setup was, by far, more simple than what occurs in an oil refinery fractional distillation setup.)

6. If time and materials are permitting, students may repeat the experiment using one of the other fluids. Students can compare their results with each other concluding the second test.

Research the difference between crude oil refining and coal liquefaction (or coal-to-oil processing. Focus specifically on how hydrocarbon structure is altered differently in each process.

Physical Science
Research how seismology is key in locating potential oil wells either on land or under water.

Compare the local ecology is influenced when a company drills for crude oil vs. digging for coal. A specific focus could be on Alaska and Alberta, Canada in the research efforts.

Complete an in depth study on why drilling for crude oil adversely affects the underground water table and the surface ground ecology. Discuss the residual effects of oil pollution in the water.

Research the pros and cons of using gasoline vs. diesel fuel. Your research could also include alternate forms of fuel being developed for the future.

Research why the once oil-bearing state of Texas is no longer considered a viable source of crude.

Social Studies
Learn more about the political and social influences on oil production with a special emphasis in Iraq and Iran. Consider investigating the other Extreme Oil lesson plan, available here.

Research how important science technology is to the politics of producing oil (i.e. why must new technology be created in efforts to maintain peace in countries where pipelines traverse across?)

Community Connections:

  • Research if your local community might be considered a prime area for oil exploration. Answers may come from such individuals as geologists, scientists or seismologists.

  • Find out if your school's energy needs comes predominately from gas or electricity. Calculate how much your school uses each year from each respective source of energy. What are some ways your school can economize on energy usage?
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