It is commonly called paraffin oil or paraffin in the UK and South Africa (not to be confused with the waxy solid also called paraffin wax or just paraffin); the term kerosene is usual in much of the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand.
Its heating value, or heat of combustion, is around 18,500 Btu/lb, or 43.1 MJ/kg, making it similar to that of diesel. It is widely used to power jet-engined aircraft, but is also commonly used as a heating fuel.
Kerosene is a thin, clear liquid formed from hydrocarbons. 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, while the other method involved using ammonium chloride (sal ammoniac). In 1807, Kerosene was refined from a naturally-occurring asphaltum called Albertite by Canadian geologist Abraham Gesner, founding the modern petroleum industry in the process. Gesner went on to establish his Kerosene Gaslight Company to market kerosene around the world in 1850. Scottish chemist James Young 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. Polish chemist Ignacy Łukasiewicz discovered the means of refining kerosene from the less expensive seep oil in 1856. 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.
Heating and lighting
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 buildup of carbon monoxide gas.
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" were 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.
Kerosene is also used for fire performances such as poi and staff because of its low flash point, making the fire low risk, should the performer come in contact with the flame.
Today, kerosene is mainly used in fuel for jet engines (more technically Avtur, Jet-A, Jet-A1, 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 as to smoke points and freeze points.
In the early 20th century, kerosene 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.
Kerosene is sometimes used as an additive in diesel fuel to prevent gelling or waxing in cold temperatures.
In countries like India, kerosene is the main fuel used for cooking, especially by the poor. Kerosene stoves have replaced the traditional wood-based cooking appliances that are unhealthy and inefficient. The price of kerosene can be a major political issue; the Indian government subsidises the fuel to keep the price very low (around 15cents/litre as of Feb.2007).
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 also be used to remove lice from hair, but this practice is painful and potentially very dangerous. Also, this would wash out all natural oil & fats from the hair and scalp.
Since kerosene is chemically stable, it is used to store substances with redox tendencies within to prevent unwanted reactions, such as alkali metals. Kerosene is also used in the packaging and storage of White Phosphorus to prevent immediate combustion on contact with oxygen.
Besides, kerosene can be used to store crystals. When a water-soluble crystal is left in air, dehydration may occur slowly. This makes the colour of the crystal become dull. Kerosene can therefore prevent the crystal contacting with air.
Kerosene is often used in the entertainment industry, as a fuel for fire dancing. Kerosene is not usually used as a fuel for indoor fire-dancing as it produces an unpleasant odour which becomes, in sufficient concentration, poisonous. In general such use of fire indoors is not common. Methanol is often used instead, but it can be a more dangerous fuel because of its lower flash point, and it also produces less "impressive" flames.
In Sri Lanka, it is also used to help ignite firewood stoves, power electric generators, wash tar and grease from vehicles or hands, remove stains from clothes, and as a rust-loosener and creeping oil.
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- Webster Online Dictionary Entry on Kerosene
- Article on Gesner
- Kerosene Fuel Primer
- Safety information: deadly if consumed
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