What will North Korea do with 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 16 2007 7:00 PM

Is 50,000 Tons a Lot of Oil?

Just what can North Korea do with all that energy?

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer's free daily podcast on iTunes.

On Tuesday, North Korea finally agreed to shut down its main Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for energy aid—a shipment of 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil, with more to follow. Just what does one do with 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil?

Not very much. Heavy fuel oil is the cheapest grade of fuel oil available—the thick, viscous sludge left behind at the end of the refining process. After it comes out of the ground, crude oil is heated to over 600 degrees and pumped into a distillation column, where gasoline, diesel fuel, kerosene, lubricants, and other petroleum products are separated out. (This includes light fuel oils—like the heating oil you might have in your basement.) Heavy fuel oil is the dense carbon residue—high in sulfur and other impurities—that remains after all these other distillates have been cooked off.


Also known as No. 6 Fuel oil, Residual Oil, Bunker C, or simply HFO, heavy fuel oil is so thick—roughly the consistency of tar—that it must be heated to around 100 degrees Fahrenheit before it can flow through pipes or be fed into a combustion chamber. Since this process typically requires heavy pressurized steam equipment, the use of heavy fuel oil is practical only on a large scale; for example, in thermal power generators, heating plants, or the large boilers onboard ships.

That's why the United States prefers to give energy aid in this form to recidivist nations like North Korea. The fuel has no uses other than creating power and heat, and it can't be further refined for military use. (You'll never turn heavy fuel oil into jet fuel.) On paper, heavy fuel oil does contain a significant amount of energy—149,690 Btu per gallon, as opposed to 139,000 for distilled home-heating oil. But in practice, it delivers only a fraction of this energy because it's so cumbersome to use.

The energy return is even worse for the North Koreans, because their power plants were designed to burn low-sulfur Korean coal rather than high-sulfur heavy fuel oil. The sulfur content leads to the formation of corrosive acids, which further cripple decrepit, Soviet-designed plants—damaging parts that are no longer available. (The State Department guesses that these plants typically operate at around 25 percent efficiency.)

Despite the inferior quality of heavy fuel oil, North Korea has relied on shipments of it for a long time. Under the Agreed Framework of 1994, the United States made yearly deliveries of about 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil to seven North Korean heating and electricity-generating plants. (Shipments stopped in 2002 when Pyongyang announced that it was developing a nuclear weapons program.) Over that time, North Korea received roughly 2.1 percent of its total energy needs from shipments of heavy fuel oil, relying on its hydroelectric facilities and coal plants for the rest. That means the initial 50,000-ton shipment Kim Jong-il has coming might account for less than a quarter of a percent of his nation's annual energy needs.

Bonus Explainer: How much is all that heavy fuel oil worth? About $13.4 million. Fifty-thousand tons translates to 333,000 barrels, or 13,986,000 gallons. Multiply that by the per-gallon price listed on the New York Mercantile Exchange earlier this week, and you get the number above.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Peter Hayes of the Nautilus Institute.

*Correction, Feb. 21, 2006: A photograph of a cargo ship that originally ran with this story was removed after readers pointed out that the caption information provided by Agence France-Presse was inaccurate. The vessel shown was not an oil tanker.



Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.