Petroleum at Low Temperatures
What happens to crude oil, or petroleum when it freezes at
extreme temperatures? Does the viscosity or usability, of the oil
change if it crystallizes?
The viscosity of petroleum definitely changes with temperature. As crude oil
warms up, its viscosity decreases (gets thinner). When cooled, its viscosity
increases (gets thicker). It's not a linear relationship though -- the
changes in the oil that occur are quite complicated because petroleum is a
complex mixture of many components.
Each component can be a liquid, a solid, or a gas depending on the
temperature and pressure. The "lighter" components (meaning lower molecular
weight) will become gases a lower temperatures compared with the "heavier"
components. For example, propane is one fraction of crude oil that is a gas
at room temperature and pressure. Propane can be liquefied at high pressure
or very low temperature. A heavier fraction of petroleum like asphalt is
very thick at room temperature, but asphalt flows much more easily when
When the asphalt cools, however, it does not 'crystallize' the way water
might -- first, it is a complex mixture, and forms a complex structure that
is a little bit solid and a little bit liquid (it is called a 'colloid' --
but that is probably outside the scope of this question). Unlike ice, which
has a well-defined structure, asphalt's structure is more disordered, not a
Also, if you increase the temperature of the oil, volatile components will
evaporate off; this is the principle that refineries use to separate the
components. Components may also break down chemically at high temperature.
Refineries use heat and pressure to chemically change components of
petroleum into more useful materials.
In general, refineries can be designed to separate all kinds of petroleum
into its useful components. If petroleum were 'frozen' -- if it were cooled
to a point where it would not flow -- it could still be warmed and
Hope this helps,
It all depends on what petroleum derivative you are cooling. Crude oil
becomes very viscous as you cool it. The cooler it gets, the "thicker"
it gets. Much below freezing, crude oil becomes as thick and sluggish
If you cool diesel oil much below 0°F, the waxes dissolved in it start
precipitating out, and the result is a whitish mass that will not flow
at all. Some grades of motor oil at the same temperature become as
thick as molasses. Gasoline on the other hand, being a lighter
"fraction" of crude oil, contains no waxes and can be cooled to very
low temperature with only moderate changes in viscosity.
No petroleum product actually "crystallizes" in cold temperature, but
they do become very much more viscous, and in some cases, like diesel
fuel mentioned above, the wax content separates out. The much greater
viscosity of oils can seriously affect their function in an engine,
and the separation of wax and thickening of diesel fuel in the cold
causes serious clogging of fuel filters and injectors.
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Update: June 2012