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Petroleum - Current Research

rock oil gas hydrocarbon

Current research in petroleum includes many different activities. Within companies that explore for and produce petroleum, scientists and engineers try to determine where they should explore for petroleum, how they might recover more petroleum from a given field, and what types of tools can be lowered into wells in order to enhance our understanding of whether or not that individual well might have penetrated an oil or gas field. They also examine more fundamental aspects of how the earth behaves, such as how rocks form and what forms of life have existed at various times in the earth's history. The United States Geological Survey continues to evaluate petroleum reserves and new technology to produce oil and gas. The federal government operates several facilities called Strategic Petroleum Reserves that store large quantities of petroleum for use in times of supply crisis.

Petroleum exploration specialists are using a type of geophysical data known as three-dimensional seismic data to study the structures and rock types below the surface of the earth in order to determine where exploration wells might successfully produce petroleum. Geochemists are assessing the results of studies of the chemistry of the surface of the earth and whether or not these results can improve the predictions of scientists prior to drilling expensive exploratory wells.

Significant recent discoveries of petroleum have been made in many areas of the world: Algeria, Brazil, China, Egypt, Indonesia, the Ivory Coast, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam, among others. In the United States, the Gulf of Mexico, Gulf Coast states, California, and Alaska continue to attract the interest of explorationists.



Jahn, F., M. Cook, and M. Graham. Hydrocarbon Exploration and Production. Developments in Petroleum Science. Vol. 46. The Netherlands: Elsevier Science, 2000.

Yergin, Daniel. The Prize. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.


Horn, M.K. "Oil and Gas." Geotimes 40, no. 2 (1995).

Oil and Gas Journal. Weekly journal published by PennWell.

Wilhems A., Larter, S.R., Head, I., et al. "Biodegradation of Oil in Uplifted Basins Prevented by Deep-burial Sterilization." Nature 411 (June 2001): 1034-1037.

Gretchen M. Gillis



—A unit of volume typically used for oil. A barrel contains 42 gal (160 l).


—An accumulation of oil or natural gas (or both) that can be produced, usually for a profit.


—Compound made from atoms of hydrogen and carbon. Methane (CH4) and propane (C3H8) are simple, gaseous hydrocarbons. Oil can vary from tar to very light liquid hydrocarbon to natural gas.

Natural gas

—Gaseous hydrocarbon.


—Liquid hydrocarbon.


—Substances made of hydrogen and carbon compounds (hydrocarbons), typically also containing impurities such as nitrogen, sulfur, and oxygen.

Reservoir rock

—A rock that has sufficient pore space and connection between pores to allow oil or gas to be stored in the rock and to flow out of the rock. Sandstones and limestones can be excellent reservoir rocks.


—Rock made of fine particles and having little pore space or connection between pores that prevents fluids from leaking out of a reservoir rock. Shale and salt provide some of the best seals for petroleum reservoirs.

Sedimentary rock

—Rock formed by deposition, compaction, and cementation of weathered rock or organic material, or by chemical precipitation. Salt and gypsum form from evaporation and precipitation processes.

Source rock

—Sedimentary rock containing sufficient organic matter (0.5-5% organic carbon from organic matter in a source rock is typical) to generate petroleum.


—A structure in which petroleum can accumulate and be stored. Anticlines (dome shaped structures below the surface of Earth) can form good traps. Traps can also form along faults and in areas where rock types change rapidly.

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