Oil #4: How Oil Got Into Everything : Planet Money Fourth of five episodes. Oil is in our sneakers, our clothes, and the computer or phone you're using right now. On today's show: The story of the man who made it happen.
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Oil #4: How Oil Got Into Everything

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Oil #4: How Oil Got Into Everything

Oil #4: How Oil Got Into Everything

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ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

We pull into McPherson, Kan. late at night. It is a small town just off the highway, but it has this skyline that looks like Manhattan, I swear - towers shooting into the sky all lit up.

VINCE BENGSTON: You see the lights way before you see it and start wondering, what's that?

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Vince Bengston lives in McPherson, and he works in those bright towers. This is an oil refinery. It's run by CHS.

BENGSTON: I mean, everybody that's here, they know what it is. It's home.

SMITH: It is a very strange home, as we can see the next morning when we get a tour. Maybe you've driven past these things before, but I'd never been inside. It is amazing - thousands of pipes and tanks and little catwalks up on the smokestacks. And it always has that single flame burning from the highest stack.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, the pilot light. And this is where the PLANET MONEY oil is going to be turned into gasoline. If that sentence sounds crazy, go back a couple of episodes. We bought 100 barrels of crude oil from a Kansas preacher. We got it pumped and tested and slurped into a pipeline and headed here. And this refinery is where the magic is about to happen.

SMITH: Just so you can picture it, we are wearing hardhats and blue lab coats. And we are the only humans walking around between these pipes.

I have always wanted to ask this when I've driven by a refinery - do you really need so many pipes? I mean, there are thousands and thousands and thousands of twisting and turning pipes, and it seems excessive.

BENGSTON: To be efficient, yes.

VANEK SMITH: All this time we've been talking about crude oil like it's one thing, just this thick, black liquid that you pull out of the ground and can touch and smell. But a refinery does not look at crude that way. To them, crude oil is a mixture of all these different things - different kinds of molecules, really - these long and short hydrocarbon blocks all jumbled up.

SMITH: It's like how I used to pick up my kids' toys at the end of every single day and sort all the Legos into different baskets. That's basically all a refinery does. It sorts like with like.

VANEK SMITH: And it does this in something called a coker. And CHS just got a brand new coker and the entire refinery, everyone we talked to, was buzzing about it.

SMITH: Yeah, you've got to see the coker, got to see the coker.

BENGSTON: This is our new coker that came online in February.

SMITH: OK, this thing that is tall...

BENGSTON: Yes.

SMITH: ...That has all sorts of, like, little balconies on it.

BENGSTON: Yes. Now...

SMITH: ...This is the new thing?

BENGSTON: Yes.

SMITH: There is no way to describe this. We've been in this huge debate about how you can picture this. It's all towers and spirals. The best thing we came up with was a sort of post-industrial water park.

VANEK SMITH: And the coker is made up of these two enormous black smokestack-looking things that tower over everything.

SMITH: And the way you separate all the different sizes of molecules, the like with like, is essentially by cooking crude in trays in this coker. It's like a very tall oven. They call it the column.

BENGSTON: Realize there is more heat at the bottom of the column than at the top.

SMITH: So how hot in the bottom and how hot at the top?

BENGSTON: I'm going to say you're about 840 on the bottom of the column...

SMITH: ...Eight hundred forty degrees?

BENGSTON: Eight hundred forty degrees Fahrenheit, 360 on top.

SMITH: So you could cook a steak, basically, at the bottom, and the top is more like a cake temperature.

BENGSTON: Yeah, a good sear on a good steak on the bottom, yes.

SMITH: So as you're cooking the crude oil the black, tar-like gook stays at the bottom of the column, the gases move up to the top, and all the different kinds of petroleum products just sort of sort themselves out in between.

VANEK SMITH: Can you list off the different things that our oil will become here?

BENGSTON: Natural gas, propane, butane, gasoline, diesel. Now, some of the sulfur that's removed in other processes goes into fertilizer.

VANEK SMITH: So our oil will get turned into butane, propane, gasoline and fertilizer. So if we go eat a sandwich in town, we could be eating our oil.

BENGSTON: Yes.

VANEK SMITH: Really?

BENGSTON: Yes.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) That's surprising.

SMITH: In fact, there's a pretty good chance of that because CHS, who runs this refinery, it is owned by a cooperative of farmers. So they are really interested in the diesel and the fertilizer. But after they take that out, I mean, nothing else is wasted. In fact, the reason this refinery is so huge is that they're trying to squeeze every last molecule of hydrocarbon out of our crude oil.

VANEK SMITH: Oil is in everything. It is in plastics, of course, but it is also in the toothpaste I brushed my teeth with when I got up. It's in the shampoo I used. It's in my phone. It's in my radio recorder. It's in my sneakers and my shirt. It is even in the aspirin I took after drinking a little too much at Montana Mike's. Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. Today on the show, how oil got into everything and why we're having a pretty hard time getting the oil out of everything. Jess Jiang and Noel King have that story after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JESS JIANG, HOST:

The story of how oil got into everything starts with one man, a chemist named Leo Baekeland. And as far as we can tell, he thought about chemistry all the time.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah, we heard this one story from someone in Leo's extended family - like, his very extended family. Carl Kaufman is a step-great-grandson-in-law or a great-step-grandson-in-law.

JIANG: I'll take it. Carl says Leo had this unusual way of dealing with hot summer days.

CARL KAUFMAN: He would simply walk into the pool with his clothes on, get himself nice and soaking wet, walk out, cool off and go on about his business without ever putting on a swim suit or anything else. As he said, evaporation is a cooling process.

JIANG: Thinking like a chemist.

KAUFMAN: Thinking like a chemist, exactly.

KING: The clothes that Leo wore into the pool would've been made of some natural fiber like cotton because this is how things worked back then. His toothbrush handle would've been made of sterling silver, and his comb was probably tortoiseshell. And if he smoked, his cigarette holder would've been ivory.

JIANG: This world was all-natural, and it was really expensive. Leo had the comb and the suit and all these things because he was a rich guy. Not everyone could afford these things. Susan Freinkel, a science writer, says it wasn't just expensive. Getting all our stuff from nature was hard.

KING: Now, this is around the time that scientists are tinkering with electricity, which, of course, will make life much easier. But at the moment it's presenting a huge challenge, which is electricity starts a lot of fires. You've got plugs and sockets and wires, and they need coating because sparks are flying. And right now, you know what they're using as coating? Something, again, all-natural - bugs. They are using bugs.

SUSAN FREINKEL: The wonderful and beautiful lac beetle, the she-lac (ph) beetle.

KING: Get it? Not the guy lac beetle, the she-lac beetle? Shellac?

JIANG: Now, people weren't lifting up the skirts of millions of bugs and pulling out the lady ones. The shellac bugs excrete a kind of resin on tree branches, and people collect that resin and make that into shellac. But still, it was a pain.

FREINKEL: It took six months and 15,000 beetles to get a pound of this resin.

JIANG: Leo was looking at shellac, and he saw a problem - trying to shellac all these new electrical plugs and sockets and whatever just wouldn't work on such a big scale.

KING: And we know he was thinking about the shellac conundrum because Leo was one of those people who wrote down everything in his big lab notebooks and in these little diaries.

JIANG: His step-great-grandson Carl says he'd write down everything in those diaries - what he'd eaten that day, what he thought of the wine he had at dinner, what time he went to bed, who he was mad at.

KAUFMAN: So-and-so came to visit me. And he had a good idea, but he's such a bore.

JIANG: So he talked smack. He'd talk smack about people.

KAUFMAN: He did. And he was very candid about it.

KING: He talked smack about a lot of other chemists. And chemist smack talk is like, oh, so-and-so has a good idea, but he's not controlling the conditions of his experiment.

JIANG: Ooh (ph).

KING: (Laughter).

JIANG: At the time, there were lots of other chemists looking for a solution, some alternative to the shellac bug. And there was this one very abundant substance - oil. It was mostly being used to make kerosene for lighting purposes. But after you made the kerosene, there was all this gunk left over with all these chemicals in it. It seemed like it should be useful somehow. But Susan Freinkel says no one knew how to use it.

FREINKEL: John D. Rockefeller looked out over his oil refinery one day and he saw these, like, blue flames coming off the top of the smokestacks. And he's like, what's that? And somebody said, well, that's ethylene, sir. You know, we don't use it, so we just burn it off. And he's like, I don't want to waste anything. You know, find something to do with that.

KING: We don't know if that story is true or not, but we like it.

JIANG: It works for us. So chemists were playing around with this oil waste and the waste from coal, and hoping to invent a better insulator than the lac bug. Carl says chemists would try different combinations of stuff, but the results were always a mess.

KAUFMAN: The thing would boil over and there would be stuff spattering all over the place, and you'd end up with a spongy mass. Useless gunk, they called it.

KING: Useless gunk.

KAUFMAN: Useless gunk. It would give off an odor so powerful that three weeks later you still couldn't go in a room with it. Well, obviously you can't use it for anything if it stinks so badly you can't live with it.

KING: You know, you can kind of imagine Leo writing in his diary, like, these other chemists just don't know what they're doing. I'm going to do them one better.

JIANG: Yeah, like, let me try this. And that's what he does. He starts doing his own experiments in his personal lab. And it was dangerous at first.

KAUFMAN: And if the reaction going on was hot enough, there was a good chance that as you poured this in the fumes of this alcohol-like material would burst into flame immediately. Like, if you have a room full of propane gas and somebody throws a match in there, boom (ph). You know, the gas is going to explode.

KING: So there were explosions.

KAUFMAN: There were - yeah, there were flash fires. Let's put it that way. And...

JIANG: ...You make it sound so delicate, but a flash fire sounds really scary.

KAUFMAN: It was terrifying. It was terrifying.

JIANG: Leo looked around his expensive laboratory and thought, no.

KAUFMAN: So he said, OK, we'll do that in the garage. I can afford to burn down my garage (laughter), but I'm not going to burn down my laboratory.

KING: For five years, Leo tinkers. First, he deals with the big problem - the flash fires. He gets those under control. But the stuff he's getting out of these experiments is still a mess. He just keeps making goo.

JIANG: He realizes he needs a special oven that can give him precise control over the temperature and the pressure, but nothing like that exists. This might've stopped other chemists.

KING: It actually did stop other chemists.

JIANG: Yeah, but it doesn't stop Leo Baekeland. Out in his garage, he builds his special oven.

KAUFMAN: It's a couple of feet high and it's shaped like an egg. And that was their pressure vessel. And you could control both the temperature and the pounds of pressure very precisely.

JIANG: OK, we have a picture of it here, and it does just look like a giant egg. It's made of iron.

KING: Yeah, it's all soldered together and it's got a pipe running in one side, and then it's got this wheel up top that I guess you crank to open it.

JIANG: And it just kind of looks steampunkish (ph).

KING: It does.

JIANG: Leo Baekeland names his new machine after himself, of course. He calls it the Bakelizer.

KING: The Bakelizer.

JIANG: And one day in 1907, he prepares his latest mixture for the Bakelizer - and this is for the chemistry geeks. He takes something called phenol, which you can get from oil or coal tar, and adds in alcohol - he uses formaldehyde - and combines them in a test tube and Puts it in the Bakelizer.

KING: He sets his oven to exactly the right temperature. And when the time is right, he opens it up and, this time, what he finds is not goo. He finds this hard amber-colored material, and it is molded in the shape of the test tube.

JIANG: He had just made plastic in a lab for the first time, and he calls it Bakelite.

KING: I'm noticing a trend here.

JIANG: He's not super creative.

(LAUGHTER)

JIANG: We have his diary entry for this day, and he didn't write Eureka in all caps on the page, but here's what he wrote.

KING: (Reading) I consider this day's very successful work, which has put me on the knot of several new and interesting products, which may have a wide application as plastics and varnishes.

And then he complains about some chemist dinner that he's got to go to.

JIANG: Leo does, though, start shopping around his new material. He talks to people making those newfangled electrical things and tells them stop messing with all those bugs. You can use this new thing I've made from fossil fuels - Bakelite. It doesn't melt. It doesn't burn. You can use it for those lightbulb bases and electrical sockets or light switches.

KING: And he talks to the Ford Company. The Model-T had just come out, and this was perfect timing. They needed something heat resistant for the guts of the car and the engine, for things like spark plugs and distributor caps. Bakelite was it.

JIANG: And this is the moment when oil starts seeping into everything we know because companies love this cheap, new material. Soon, everything we know is being made from plastic.

KAUFMAN: And at the time, it was the really hot stuff. There was no other plastic to compete with it because nothing else had anything like the properties of Bakelite. That was it. So Baekeland had, in effect - he wasn't just part of the plastics industry. He was the plastics industry.

KING: In 1924, Leo made the cover of TIME magazine. Susan Freinkel, the science writer, actually dug up a copy of the article. It's a breathless review of this thing made from oil. The material - Bakelite.

FREINKEL: (Reading) From the time that a man brushes his teeth in the morning with a Bakelite-handled brush until the moment when he removes his last cigarette from a Bakelite holder, extinguishes it in a Bakelite ashtray and falls back upon a Bakelite bed, all that he touches, sees, uses will be made of this material of a thousand uses.

KING: TIME magazine wasn't overstating it. See, when Leo figured out how to make plastic out of fossil fuel waste, he took us from a world where toothbrushes are made of sterling silver - like, how much would that cost? - to a world where they're made of plastic, and you can get one for a couple of bucks.

JIANG: This is huge. Everyone can get one of everything. Carl says this was important to Leo.

KAUFMAN: He was proud to be part of that. He thought that was important. He thought that just to make products that only the crown jewels could afford to buy, you know, fine, but he would not have been interested in Bakelite at all unless he saw mass markets for it and very widespread applications that would, in effect, redound to the value of the middle class, not just the elite.

JIANG: Leo Baekeland formed a company, and the company started calling Bakelite the fourth kingdom, as in animal, vegetable, mineral and now Bakelite, a whole new category of stuff.

KING: Leo had cracked this big chemical mystery using waste from fossil fuels, and other chemists copped on. It's like we add this molecule here and we get Ziploc bags. We add this molecule and we get Styrofoam. You add a different molecule, you get your kids' Legos. And today, it's infinite.

JOHN WARNER: The shoes that I'm wearing have definitely got petroleum materials, not just the plastics but the pigments and the coatings.

KING: This is John Warner. He's a chemist.

WARNER: The telephone that I'm holding certainly has petroleum materials. I have a little plastic sticky thing on my phone that my 3-year-old daughter gave me. I don't even really know what it is, but that's made of petroleum. I've got a little statue of Spock on my desk, and that's made out of petroleum. The monitor...

KING: So what do we make of all of this? Basically, today, if you're going to have anything, it's going to be partly made of oil or fossil fuels.

JIANG: That's Leo's legacy, and Carl wishes that Leo could be celebrated, that he could be remembered like Thomas Edison, like a great inventor. And he's kind of frustrated he isn't.

KING: But some of Leo's other extended family, his great-grandkids, they have more complicated feelings about plastic. Because oil is so cheap and plentiful, plastic is also cheap and plentiful and everywhere, including in the ocean and piling up in landfills.

JIANG: We had this conversation with Leo's great-granddaughter Roberta Roll. And she says she's proud of Leo Baekeland and the plastic he created, but she also tries to avoid using it.

ROBERTA ROLL: I try not to buy stuff in plastic. I don't buy my vegetables wrapped in plastic, you know, things like that. You know, it's unavoidable sometimes. You order something from Amazon, it all comes wrapped in plastic.

KING: And Leo's great-grandson Hugh told us he goes around picking plastic bags up off the side of the road.

JIANG: People feel uneasy about plastic. And so what chemists are doing now is basically trying to undo what Leo Baekeland discovered in his lab.

MARC HILLMYER: I feel kind of a cosmic connection to Leo Baekeland. The lab discovery was made on my birthday...

KING: No.

HILLMYER: ...And so I kind of make that connection.

JIANG: Marc Hillmyer is a chemist at the University of Minnesota. And Marc has two big problems with the way we make plastic. He says, for one thing, plastic can hang around forever. It's not biodegradable, and second, oil is limited.

KING: But Marc's story is a really good illustration of how hard it is to make a new kind of plastic, one that is not made from oil.

JIANG: He's trying to make one made of vegetables.

KING: You're bringing an ear of corn to a knife fight.

HILLMYER: Yeah (laughter) that's a good analogy.

KING: He's tried corn, also coconut, orange peels, caraway seeds, and you know what worked? Peppermint, menthol.

HILLMYER: We came up with using menthol, the same menthol that's in cigarettes and candies.

JIANG: But, like, in my gum.

HILLMYER: Exactly, like peppermint gum.

KING: The plastic made out of peppermint was durable like regular plastic, and it was biodegradable. It broke down in water. Marc thought you could probably use this to make a lot of stuff.

JIANG: Like, say, sneakers. They'd hold up just like regular running shoes, but when you're ready to throw them out, you can just bury them in your backyard.

KING: Compostable sneakers.

JIANG: And Marc published his research and got the word out to the big plastic companies. Look at what we can do.

HILLMYER: It was a beautiful success.

JIANG: Wait, there was a pause when you said success.

HILLMYER: Nobody was interested. It just was not inexpensive enough to make a product that would compete with the petroleum-based counterpart.

KING: You didn't even get to make your peppermint and corn shoes and then have people say, I'm not going to pay $97 for those when I can get them for $50. You just didn't even have anyone ask you to try.

HILLMYER: That's right. And, I mean, it's not really $97 versus $57. It's kind of if the shoes cost $57, these would cost $500.

JIANG: Whoa.

KING: Whoa.

HILLMYER: And so (laughter)...

KING: Peppermint is a lot more expensive than the oil-based ingredient - polyethylene. Peppermint oil is 20 bucks a kilogram, Marc told us, and polyethylene is $2.

JIANG: So Marc went back to the lab and tried a totally new strategy. Instead of trying to find the molecules he needed in nature, he got a biochemist to just make them. They genetically modified E. coli bacteria, which I normally think of something that would make me sick. But in this case, he used the E. coli to turn sugar into a key ingredient for plastic. And he remembers a colleague bursting through his office door, showing him this plastic made from E. coli bacteria.

HILLMYER: I was thrilled (laughter). I was absolutely thrilled.

JIANG: What did it feel like when you held it?

HILLMYER: It's kind of stretchy. It's stretchy material that bounces back, almost like a rubber band. When I had this material in my hand, I knew from my experience, years working on these projects, that we really had something.

JIANG: Marc says this plastic made from bacteria is just as cheap as the stuff made from oil. But his new plastic isn't in stores yet. He hopes in a couple years you buy some new car tires or a box of Band-Aids and you might be buying his E. coli plastic.

KING: Still, Marc's plastic only works for certain things, only about a fifth of the plastics we use. And it took him 20 years to get this far. This is hard to do without oil.

So, Jess, Marc Hillmyer actually sent you some of his E. coli plastic in the mail, right?

JIANG: He did. And he also said he's sending two pairs of gloves, so I'm actually a little bit nervous to open this package.

KING: What are the gloves for?

JIANG: I don't know. OK. Ready?

KING: Yeah - moment of truth here.

JIANG: Oh, my God, there are gloves.

KING: Oh, oh.

JIANG: This is it.

KING: OK, put your gloves on. It's in a little Ziploc baggie. It's a little square. It's like - I don't know - an inch and a half by two inches. And it's hard plastic actually. It's like the kind of plastic - like, think about - I don't know - maybe Tupperware, something like that.

JIANG: Except stretchable Tupperware.

KING: Yeah, stretchable Tupperware. And...

JIANG: And it's clear.

KING: And it's clear. You could see through it. It doesn't look - it doesn't look like cutting edge, does it?

JIANG: No, I do really want to, like, bite it (laughter).

KING: I dare you to lick it. I dare you to lick the E. coli plastic.

JIANG: OK, I'm going to do it.

KING: Do it. She's...

JIANG: I licked it.

KING: You licked it. You licked it. Oh, my God. We're wearing gloves, and you licked it. I didn't really think you were going to do that.

JIANG: (Laughter) I was curious.

KING: Go wash your mouth out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JIANG: OK. Let's go back to Kansas.

KING: Stacey, Robert, you guys have the last word.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Hey, it's Robert and Stacey again...

VANEK SMITH: Hello.

SMITH: ...In Kansas. Now that our oil's been refined, it has one final leg of its journey.

VANEK SMITH: Into a gas tank.

SMITH: Yes, actual people will be using our oil, we hope. Vince Bengston showed us the very noisy pipeline that takes our refined fuel from the refinery out to the world.

VANEK SMITH: And where is this pipeline going?

BENGSTON: Council Bluffs.

VANEK SMITH: Where is that?

BENGSTON: Iowa.

SMITH: We're going to Iowa.

VANEK SMITH: Looks like we're going to Iowa. PLANET MONEY's oil, which is now PLANET MONEY's gasoline, is headed to Iowa, and we're going with it.

SMITH: It's like a graduation.

VANEK SMITH: It is like a graduation.

SMITH: We're letting go of the oil, but the oil is doing something bigger and better.

VANEK SMITH: We're moving the tassel over to the other side. And now our oil has graduated into a usable product.

SMITH: (Laughter) I love how you say usable product like you're in the petroleum business. Good job, Stacey.

VANEK SMITH: I am in the petroleum business and so are you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: We have a few people that we would like to thank, including the whole team at CHS, especially Lani Jordan, Jim Loving and Malissa Fritz. Also thank you to Jim Karraker, Rigoberto Advincula and Robert Friedel. This episode was produced by Sally Helm and Elizabeth Kulas.

SMITH: We always love to hear what you think of the show. You can email us - planetmoney@npr.org.

VANEK SMITH: We also have a lot of pictures from our oil trip. You can check those out on Facebook and Twitter. And if you're looking for another podcast to listen to, check out Pop Culture Happy Hour. Every week, they have really interesting discussions about the latest movies and TV shows and books, including interviews with people like Shonda Rhimes and Trevor Noah. You can check them out on the NPR One app or at npr.org/podcast. And stay tuned for our next episode where PLANET MONEY oil, which is now PLANET MONEY gasoline, actually makes it into someone's gas tank. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. Thanks for listening.

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