Tanker or Oil,which came first?


Dear All,

We have been talking about seafarers, their motivations, their challenges etc.


Today let’s talk about ships they work on. I have chosen a tanker and its story, as it has seen the maximum change in construction and other aspects.Also Crude oil is such a commodity which was until recently ruling the world economics and may continue for some time to come.


Let’s start with the crude oil story, and the tanker story follows closely. (Note: we will have to Jump between refining of crude oil, production of crude oil and the development of tankers as all happened simultaneously, hence please bear with me.)


1859 was the year when it all started, before that there were traces of crude all over the world in small negligible quantities which could not be put to much use. Do you know what was the initial production? It was 10 Barrels/day (around 1500 Litres) and in two years it increased to 3000 barrels /day (around 4,50,000 Ltrs)


The crude oil also called at that time as Rock oil was replacing the whale oil which was being used earlier in lamps, as the kerosene which was distilled from the crude oil, burned without smoke.This was the biggest purpose of the crude oil then.


The oil was transported in the most sophisticated way known that time which was in barrels on cargo ships(Seafarers and the maritime industry is so tradition that we still use this barrel as one of the units of measure for crude oil even today)

Ship loaded with barrels


With the increasing quantity of the crude oil and the Kerosene as product, these barrels were becoming expensive, they could be used only once and it leaked, reducing the quantity of the cargo. Also the cost of barrel was almost 20% of the cost of the oil it was carrying.





Now lets look into the refining side before coming back to the production again


The refining also started simultaneous with production mainly concentrating on Kerosene. The initial method was by distillation (Heating the crude oil and collecting the cooling vapours). The refining process continuously saw improvements and by 1890 the refineries, now also moved to Russia were producing large quantities of Kerosene and Fuel oil. They had by then started producing some quantity of diesel Also.


The development of the Automobiles in early 20th century i.e. around 1910, the need for gasoline increased considerably and so the Refineries geared up and produced more grades from the crude oil.


The technology also improved and the refiners used cracking (Chemical breaking of bigger molecules into smaller one, Let’s just leave it at that, we don’t want a chemistry class here.) among other techniques to improve the yield of the crude oil.


Next burst of the technology came with the development of airplanes which were mostly fighter planes where much lighter fuels were required, where the refiners add more chemicals to increase the performance of the aeroplanes. The refining process kept getting better continuously.


The 1950s again brought a boom in passenger aeroplane requirement where the requirement of Jet fuel started to increase, which continues to till date. The evolution of the products from crude oil have taken only 100 (1st starting in 1859 production in large quantities) years where it has brought about a sea change in our transportation technology


By 1970 the petroleum-refining industry had become well established throughout the world. Delivery of crude oil to be refined into petroleum products had reached almost 2.3 billion tons per year (40 million barrels per day)

Beginning in the mid-1970s, there was a ban on using Lead additives to the petroleum product view the pollution worries and beginning in the 1990s the refineries were forced to make substantial investments in still reducing the harmful contents in the petroleum products.


In 2020, as all may be aware the world is again going into a major transition of using lower sulphur fuel to further reduce the pollution caused by in using these fuels in the Main Engine of the ships.


Coming back to the production which also kept increasing with discovering of new wells all over the world. The biggest pocket of crude oil i.e. Persian Gulf, started exploration and exporting in the 1950s and 1960s. The oil well as they are called were mostly operated by US and British companies. In 1970s the Gulf countries slowly started taking over the well back and by 1990s all the wells were owned and operated by the local country governments.They still however employed Europeans and Americans in the top executive positions but kept the decision with the governments.


Development of tankers:


The whole credit of starting the tanker business and doing away with the carrying of oil in Barrels, actually goes to 2 brothers named Ludvig Noble and Robert Nobel who got, built in Sweden the first full fledged tanker called Zoroaster which was built in 1878 with length of 56 mtrs. Then after the success of this vessel, Noble brothers started building ships at regular intervals all operated by Steam Engines.


As the crude transport increased, the oil was required all over the world and hence the oil had to be transported through the Suez Canal as well. After a very hesitant start by the Suez Canal Authorities, the first tanker crossed Suez Canal in 1892.


In 1903 the Noble brothers built 2 oil tankers which ran on Diesel Engine for the 1st time. The Ship was capable of carrying around 750MT


Till 1956, the number of ships were increasing and tankers were designed to be able to transit the Suez Canal. In 1956 when the Suez Canal closed(Details), the ships were forced to move oil around the Cape of Good Hope (Below the South African continent). Ship owners realized that bigger tankers were the key to more efficient transport. (See the Pic)











This started the building of bigger size tankers as there was no more restrictions in size and world's 1st VLCC(very large crude carrier) and ULCC(Ultra large crude carrier).The world's largest super tanker ever was also built in 1979 as the Seawise Giant. This ship was built with a capacity of 564,763 DWT, a length overall of 458.45 metres. Seawise Giant was renamed Happy Giant in 1989, Jahre Viking in 1991.From 1979 to 2004 she was owned by Loki Stream.This Ship Finally went to scrap in 2009, in India.


After 1979, there were many regulations for the construction of the tankers and changing hull from Single hull to double hull after a pollution accident in 1989.There have been many new developments in the construction and operation of the tankers which the recent seafarers may be aware of and hence would sign off here.


In summarizing, the tankers have been around for 150 years in various shapes and sizes. With crude prices at historical Lows and with LNG taking over as next generation fuel, we may be seeing the beginning of the end for crude oil tankers may be not in the present generation.


We hope you enjoyed reading the post. Please do comment and share!


Credits: Wikipedia,History channel,Britannica

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