With its nickname being “liquid gold,” petroleum holds a vital position in modern society. This dark liquid hiding underneath the ground is primarily composed of alkanes, naphthenes, and aromatics. As a fossil fuel, petroleum is naturally formed from dead organisms like zooplankton, plants, or other animals buried deeper and deeper into the Earth after millions of years. When underneath sedimentary rocks, extreme heat and pressure lead to hydrocarbon combustion, the chemical reaction that turns fossils into fuel.
Although petroleum usage became popular world-wide in the 19th and 20th centuries due to the Industrial Revolution, petroleum was discovered and used much earlier. In China, the first person to discover and apply petroleum (or, in Chinese, shi you “石油”) was Song Dynasty scientist Shen Kuo (1032—1095).
Shen was a polymath. He was a diplomat for the Song Dynasty, hydraulic engineer who directed flood prevention and rescue, inventor, mathematician, army general, astronomer, geologist, chemist, medical scientist, scholar, and even a writer. He wrote the Dream Pool Essays, an encyclopedic essay collection that analyzes the politics, science, and sociology of ancient China. It was in this collection that he coined the Chinese term for petroleum, shi you, and described his work with petroleum.
As a scholar and diplomat, he had access to many Song Dynasty documents, and among them he encountered a line saying “the water in Gao Nu [an ancient Chinese county] burns.” This was contradictory to classical knowledge: water and fire do not coexist. As a result, Shen decided to visit the area himself.
As an army general, Shen traveled frequently, and, in 1080, when he was about fifty years old, he discovered that this “burning water” could be found throughout China. He recorded in the Dream Pool Essays that petroleum could be found leaking periodically out from small streams, and local villagers would collect this liquid with feathers and store them in jars.
Shen wrote that, when he tried to burn petroleum himself, the flame created was similar to that of a torch, and dark soot covered the cloth of his tent. Thinking that this soot was of value, Shen gathered up the soot and attempted to turn it into ink.
This petroleum ink attained great success. It was more visible and longer-lasting than the traditional ink made from burning wood. Shen immediately started to mass-produce his petroleum ink, and he named his ink “Yan Zhou rock liquid,” after the place where he made his discovery and application.
After more experimentation and application with petroleum, Shen praised in his essay that petroleum was a vital material since it was so plentiful and easy to find, while wood might not be available all the time.
“This material [petroleum] will impact the world greatly in the future,” concluded Shen.
Shen even wrote a poem about his experience working with petroleum, comparing the smoke and soot created from burning petroleum to the countless dust in the air.
Now, the location where Shen discovered petroleum is a prospering oil field.