It was on this day, almost 160 years ago (27 March 1855, to be exact), that Abraham Gesner received his first US patent for the production of kerosene, a combustable, hydrocarbon oil produced from bituminous shale and cannel coal. The word ‘kerosene’, registered as a trademark by Gesner, was derived from the Greek ‘keros’, meaning ‘wax’.
The term eventually became a genericised trademark, and is generally used in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. In other regions, including the UK, South Africa and South-East Asia, it is more generally known as ‘paraffin’.
Kerosene is one of the most widely used fuels, used in diverse applications ranging from rocket engines to camping stoves. The fuel was originally developed by Gesner ‘for the purpose of illumination’, and this remains its most common use in rural Africa and Asia where electricity is not available or too costly. It is estimated that an incredible 77 billion litres of kerosene are burnt internationally per year for lighting purposes.
Thanks to its rather low flame temperature when burnt in open air, kerosene has also become popular as the fuel of choice for entertainers such as fire breathers, jugglers and dancers, as it has less risk of causing severe burns should it come in contact with the performer.
Another interesting use of kerosene is as a pesticide – it has been proven to be effective at killing insects such as bed bugs and head lice, and can be applied to pools of still-standing water to kill mosquito larvae. It is, however, toxic and potentially fatal when ingested hence care should be taken to avoid human contact.
From powering rockets to illumination to fire dancing to insect control – a versatile fuel indeed.