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Glossary - In Depth

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Kerosene, sometimes spelled kerosine in scientific and industrial usage, is a combustible hydrocarbon liquid. The word Kerosene was registered as a trademark by Abraham Gesner in 1854 and for several years only the North American Gas Light Company and the Downer Company (to which Gesner had granted the right) were allowed to call their lamp oil kerosene. It eventually became genericized.

It is usually called paraffin (sometimes paraffin oil) in the UK and South Africa (not to be confused with the waxy solid also called paraffin wax or just paraffin, or the much more viscous paraffin oil used as a laxative); the term kerosene is usual in much of Canada, the United States, Australia (where it is usually referred to colloquially as kero) and New Zealand.

Kerosene is widely used to power jet-engined aircraft (Jet fuel) and some rockets, but is also commonly used as a heating fuel and for fire toys such as poi.

Kerosene is typically stored in a blue (or blue labeled) container

The heat of combustion of Kerosene is similar to that of diesel: its Lower Heating Value is around 18,500 Btu/lb, or 43.1 MJ/kg, and its Higher Heating Value is 46.2MJ/kg.


Kerosene is a thin, clear liquid formed from hydrocarbons, with density of 0.78-0.81g/cm3. Kerosene is obtained from the fractional distillation of petroleum between 150 °C and 275 °C, resulting in a mixture of carbon chains containing 12 to 15 carbon atoms.


Kerosene was first described by al-Razi (Rhazes) as a distillation of petroleum in 9th-century Baghdad. In his Kitab al-Asrar (Book of Secrets), he described two methods for the production of kerosene. One method involved using clay as an absorbent, whereas the other method involved using ammonium chloride (sal ammoniac).

In 1846 Canadian geologist Abraham Gesner gave a public demonstration in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island of a new process he had discovered. He heated coal in a retort and distilled from it a clear, thin fluid which he showed made an excellent lamp fuel. He coined the name "Kerosene" for his fuel, a contraction of keroselaion, meaning wax-oil. The cost of extracting kerosene from coal was, however, high. Fortunately, Gesner recalled from his extensive knowledge of New Brunswick's geology a naturally-occurring asphaltum called Albertite. He was however blocked from using it by the New Brunswick coal conglomerate because they had coal extraction rights for the province and he lost a court case when their experts claimed that Albertite was in fact a form of coal. Gesner subsequently moved to Newton Creek, Long Island, USA, in 1854, where he secured the backing of a group of businessmen. They formed the North American Gas Light Company, to which he assigned his patents. Despite clear priority of discovery, Gesner did not obtain his first kerosene patent until 1854, two years after James Young's US patent. Gesner's method of purifying the distillation products appears to have been superior to Young's, resulting in a cleaner and better smelling fuel. Manufacture of kerosene under the Gesner patents began in New York in 1854 and later in Boston, being distilled from bituminous coal and oil shale.

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In 1848 Scottish chemist James Young experimented with oil discovered seeping in a coal mine as a source of lubricating oil and illuminating fuel. When the seep became exhausted he experimented with the dry distillation of coal, especially the resinous "Boghead coal" (Torbanite). He extracted a number of useful liquids from it, one of which he named "paraffine oil" because at low temperatures it congealed into a substance resembling paraffin wax. Young took out a patent on his process and the resulting products in 1850, and built the first truly commercial oil-works in the world at Bathgate in 1851, using oil extracted from locally-mined Torbanite, shale, and bituminous coal. In 1852 he took out a US patent for the same invention. These patents were subsequently upheld in both countries in a series of lawsuits and other producers were obliged to pay him royalties. See also coal oil.
In 1851 Samuel Martin Kier began selling kerosene to local miners, under the name "Carbon Oil". He distilled this by a process of his own invention from crude oil. He also invented a new lamp to burn his product. He has been dubbed the Grandfather of the American Oil Industry by historians. Since the 1840s, Kier's salt wells were becoming fouled with petroleum. At first, Kier simply dumped the useless oil into the nearby Pennsylvania Main Line Canal, but later he began experimenting with several distillates of the crude oil along with a chemist from eastern Pennsylvania.
Ignacy Lukasiewicz, a Polish pharmacist residing in Lvov had been experimenting with different kerosene distillation techniques, trying to improve on Gesner's process, using local seep oil. Many people knew of his work but paid little attention to it. On the night of July 31 1853, doctors at the local hospital needed to perform an emergency operation, virtually impossible by candlelight. They therefore sent a messenger for Luka and his new lamps. The lamp burned so brightly and cleanly that the hospital officials ordered several examples plus a large supply of fuel. Luka realized the potential of his work and quit the pharmacy to find a business partner and then travelled to Vienna to register his technique with the government. Lukasiewicz moved to the Gorlice region of Poland in 1854 and sank several wells across southern Poland over the following decade, setting up a refinery near Jasło in 1859.

The widespread availability of cheaper kerosene was the principal factor in the precipitous decline in the whaling industry in the mid–to–late–19th–century, as the leading product of whaling was oil for lamps.

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As a fuel

Heating and Lighting
Fuels for heating
Heating oil
Wood pellet
Natural gas

At one time the fuel was widely used in kerosene lamps and lanterns. While replacing whale oil, it was considered as "explosive as gunpowder." - the 1873 edition of Elements of Chemistry notes that "The vapor of this substance [kerosene] mixed with air is as explosive as gunpowder." This may have been due to the common practice of adulterating kerosene with other, more volatile hydrocarbons, such as the cheaper benzene. Kerosene was also a fire risk; in 1880, 39% of New York City fires were caused by defective kerosene lamps.These were superseded by the electric light bulb and flashlights powered by dry cell batteries.
Its use as a cooking fuel is mostly restricted to some portable stoves for backpackers and to less developed countries, where it is usually less refined and contains impurities and even debris.

As a heating fuel, it is often used in portable stoves, and is sold in some filling stations. It is sometimes used as a heat source during power failures. The use of portable kerosene heaters is not recommended for closed indoor areas without a chimney due to the danger of build-up of carbon monoxide gas.
Kerosene is widely used in Japan as a home heating fuel for portable and installed kerosene heaters. In Japan, kerosene can be readily bought at any filling station or be delivered to homes.

In the United Kingdom and Ireland kerosene is often used as a heating fuel in areas that are unconnected to the gas pipeline network. It is used less for cooking, which has more commonly been LPG for some decades now, owing to its easier lighting.
The Amish, who limit use of electric appliances for religious reasons, rely on kerosene for lighting and often purchase kerosene-powered versions of appliances such as refrigerators.

More ubiquitous in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, kerosene space heaters were often built into kitchen ranges and kept many farm and fishing families warm and dry through the winter. At one time citrus growers used smudge pots fueled by kerosene to create a pall of thick smoke over a grove in an effort to prevent freezing temperatures from damaging crops. Salamanders are kerosene space heaters used on construction sites to dry out building materials and to warm workers. Before the days of blinking electrically lighted road barriers, highway construction zones were marked at night by kerosene fired pot-bellied torches. Most of these uses of kerosene created thick black smoke because of the low temperature of combustion.

A notable exception, discovered in the early 19th century, is the use of a mantle above the wick on a kerosene lamp. Looking like a delicate woven bag above the woven cotton wick, the mantle was a residue of mineral material (thorium dioxide) which glowed white hot as it burned the volatile gases emanating from the blue flame at the base of the wick. These types of lamps are still in use today in areas of the world without electricity.

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In the mid-20th century, kerosene or TVO (Tractor Vaporising Oil) was used as a cheap fuel for tractors. The engine would start on gasoline, then switch over to kerosene once the engine warmed up. A heat valve on the manifold would route the exhaust gases around the intake pipe, heating the kerosene to the point where it can be ignited by an electrical spark.

Today kerosene is mainly used in fuel for jet engines (more technically Avtur, Jet A, Jet A-1, Jet B, JP-4, JP-5, JP-7 or JP-8). One form of the fuel known as RP-1 is burned with liquid oxygen as rocket fuel. These fuel grade kerosenes meet specifications for smoke points and freeze points. In the initial phase of lift off the Saturn V launch vehicle was powered by the reaction of liquid oxygen with kerosene. The reaction can be approximated as follows, with the molecular formula C12H26:

C12H26(l) + 37/2 O2(g) → 12 CO2(g) + 13 H2O(g); ∆H˚ = -7513 kJ

The reaction generates an average 1.62 x 1011 watts (J/s) or 217 million horsepower.

Kerosene is sometimes used as an additive in diesel fuel to prevent gelling or waxing in cold temperatures.

Ultra-low sulfur kerosene is a custom-blended fuel used by the New York City Transit to power its bus fleet. The transit agency started using this fuel in 2004, prior to the widespread adoption of ultra-low sulfur diesel, which has since become the standard. In 2008, the suppliers of the custom fuel failed to tender for a renewal of the transit agency's contract, leading to a negotiated contract at a significantly increased cost.

In countries such as India and Japan, kerosene is the main fuel used for cooking, especially by the poor. Kerosene stoves have replaced traditional wood-based cooking appliances. The price of kerosene can be a major political and environmental issue; the Indian government subsidizes the fuel to keep the price very low (around 15 cents/liter as of Feb. 2007). Lower prices discourage dismantling of forests for cooking fuel.

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Cultural/Performance Art

Kerosene is often used in the entertainment industry for fire performances such as poi and fire dancing, because of its low flame temperature when burnt in free air, reducing the risk, should the performer come in contact with the flame. Kerosene is not usually used as a fuel for indoor fire-dancing as it produces an unpleasant odour which becomes poisonous in sufficient concentration. Methanol is often used instead, but it also produces less impressive flames, and it can be a more dangerous fuel because of its lower flash point.

Other Uses

Kerosene has been used to treat pools of standing water to prevent mosquitoes from breeding, notably in the yellow fever outbreak of 1905 in New Orleans.
It can be used to remove lice from hair, but this practice is painful and potentially very dangerous. Also, this practice removes all natural oils and fats from the scalp.
Since kerosene is chemically stable, it is used to store substances with redox tendencies within to prevent unwanted reactions, such as alkali metals.

It is used in the packaging and storing of white phosphorus to prevent contact with oxygen, which would lead to immediate combustion. |

Kerosene can be used to store crystals. When a hydrated crystal is left in air, dehydration may occur slowly. This makes the color of the crystal become dull. Kerosene can keep air from the crystal.

It is used as a solvent.

Kerosene can be applied topically to hard-to-remove mucilage or adhesive left by stickers on a glass surface (such as in show windows of stores).

Kerosene can be used to remove candle wax that has dripped onto a glass surface; it is recommended that the excess wax be scraped off prior to applying kerosene via a soaked cloth or tissue paper.

Kerosene can be used to clean bicycle and motorcycle chains of old lubricant before relubrication.

It can be used in conjunction with cutting oil as a thread cutting and reaming lubricant. When machining aluminium and its alloys, kerosene on its own is an excellent cutting lubricant.


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