Crude oil is a naturally occurring, flammable liquid consisting of a complex mixture of hydrocarbons of various molecular weights, and other organic compounds, that are found in geologic formations beneath the earth′s surface.

In its strictest sense, petroleum includes only crude oil, but in common usage it includes both crude oil and natural gas. Both crude oil and natural gas are predominantly a mixture of hydrocarbons. Under surface pressure and temperature conditions, the lighter hydrocarbons methane, ethane, propane and butane occur as gases, while the heavier ones from pentane and up are in the form of liquids or solids. However, in the underground oil reservoir the proportion which is gas or liquid varies depending on the subsurface conditions, and on the phase diagram of the petroleum mixture.

An oil well produces predominantly crude oil, with some natural gas dissolved in it. Because the pressure is lower at the surface than underground, some of the gas will come out of solution and be recovered (or burned) as associated gas or solution gas. A gas well produces predominately natural gas. However, because the underground temperature and pressure are higher than at the surface, the gas may contain heavier hydrocarbons such as pentane, hexane, and heptane in the gaseous state. Under surface conditions these will condense out of the gas and form natural gas condensate, often shortened to condensate. Condensate resembles gasoline in appearance and is similar in composition to some volatile light crude oils.

The proportion of hydrocarbons in the petroleum mixture is highly variable between different oil fields and ranges from as much as 97% by weight in the lighter oils to as little as 50% in the heavier oils and bitumens.

The hydrocarbons in crude oil are mostly alkanes, cycloalkanes and various aromatic hydrocarbons while the other organic compounds contain nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur, and trace amounts of metals such as iron, nickel, copper and vanadium. The exact molecular composition varies widely from formation to formation but the proportion of chemical elements vary over fairly narrow limits as follows:

  • Carbon: 83 to 87%
  • Hydrogen: 10 to 14%
  • Nitrogen: 0.1 to 2%
  • Oxygen: 0.1 to 1.5%
  • Sulfur: 0.5 to 6%
  • Metals: less than 1000 ppm