Oil has many uses; it heats homes and businesses and fuels trucks, ships and some cars. A small amount of electricity is produced by diesel, but it is more polluting and more expensive than natural gas. It is often used as a backup fuel for peaking power plants in case the supply of natural gas is interrupted or as the main fuel for small electrical generators. In Europe, the use of diesel is generally restricted to cars (about 40%), SUVs (about 90%), and trucks and buses (virtually all). The market for home heating using fuel oil, called heating oil, has decreased due to the widespread penetration of natural gas. However, it is very common in some areas, such as the Northeastern United States.

Residual fuel oil is less useful because it is so viscous that it has to be heated with a special heating system before use and it contains relatively high amounts of pollutants, particularly sulfur, which forms sulfur dioxide upon combustion. However, its undesirable properties make it very cheap. In fact, it is the cheapest liquid fuel available. Since it requires heating before use, residual fuel oil cannot be used in road vehicles, boats or small ships, as the heating equipment takes up valuable space and makes the vehicle heavier. Heating the oil is also a delicate procedure, which is inappropriate to do on small, fast moving vehicles. However, power plants and large ships are able to use residual fuel oil.

Residual fuel oil was used more frequently in the past. It powered boilers, railroad steam locomotives and steamships. Locomotives now use diesel; steamships are not as common as they were previously due to their higher operating costs (most LNG carriers use steam plants, as “boil-off” gas emitted from the cargo can be used as a fuel source); and most boilers now use heating oil or natural gas. However, some industrial boilers still use it and so do a few old buildings, including in New York City. The City estimates that the 1% of its buildings that burn fuel oils No. 4 and No. 6 are responsible for 86% of the soot pollution generated by all buildings in the city. New York has made the phase out of these fuel grades part of its environmental plan, PlaNYC, because of concerns for the health effects caused by fine particulates.


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