The Fascinating Production, Use, and Industry of Petrochemicals

Rohan Mathew

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If I told you petrochemicals are an important part of your daily life, would you believe me? After all, it doesn’t sound like something you use. It sounds complicated and technical.

But in fact, petrochemicals are commonplace. In fact. They’re an essential part of modern society. Whether you know it or not, you use petrochemicals all the time.

How do you use them, though? What are they, and what are they used for? We’re going to take a deeper look at petrochemicals, to examine what they are and how we use them in our daily lives.

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What Are Petrochemicals?

Petrochemicals are chemicals that come from oils and natural gases. They’re a by-product of the production and use of petroleum and other oils and gases. Beyond that, there are three categories of petrochemicals; primaries, intermediates, and derivatives.

Primary petrochemicals come straight from petroleum and other gases and oils. These include several common substances, such as ethylene, benzene, and methanol.

Intermediates are the step between a simple petrochemical and a more complex derivative. Intermediate petrochemicals are usually created by a chemical reaction. Mixing the petrochemical with another chemical converts the primary chemical into the intermediate.

Petrochemical derivatives are more complex chemicals. They are usually made by combining an intermediate with another chemical. Sometimes this second chemical is another petrochemical. Other times it’s another chemical altogether.

Let’s look at an example of this process. We can start with the petrochemical methanol. By modifying methanol, we can get formaldehyde. If we go a step further, by combining our formaldehyde with phenol, we get our derivative, a resin.

How Do Petrochemicals Work?

Part of the use of petrochemicals is that they’re relatively simple. The chemistry behind them isn’t a difficult as many other examples.

Petrochemicals are molecules that are mostly made up of carbon and hydrogen. These molecules are called hydrocarbons. They share this with many natural gases and oils, including their namesake, petroleum. This is why we synthesize petrochemicals from natural oils or gases.

Hydrocarbons are separated into two categories, saturated and unsaturated molecules. A molecule is in one of these categories based on the kinds of bonds that link its atoms together. A single bond makes a saturated molecule. Double bonds are considered unsaturated.

Most petrochemicals are made out of unsaturated petrochemical molecules. Unsaturated molecules are generally preferred in industry and manufacturing. Unsaturated molecules are more reactive than saturated molecules. That makes them more useful for creating other materials.

From here, petrochemicals divide further, into one of three different categories. The most prominent difference between categories is the shape of the molecule.

Unsaturated molecules that form a straight chain are called olefins. An example of an olefin is the chemical ethylene. Ethylene is the most widely used petrochemical in modern industry.

Hydrocarbons that create ringed molecules are called aromatics. Some common examples of aromatic petrochemicals are xylene and benzene. Benzene is another widely used chemical.

The third and final category of a petrochemical molecule is a synthesis gas. These molecules are your inorganic compounds and are used in things such as methanol. Inorganic synthetic molecules are widely used in the production of things like fertilizers.

The beautiful part of petrochemical production is that this is relatively simple chemistry. It doesn’t take much to understand the processes at work or to produce a specific result. This makes them extremely efficient and useful for industrial applications.

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What Are Petrochemicals Used For?

Petrochemicals have a wide variety of uses, from industrial to manufacturing. In fact, petrochemicals see use in different industries all around the world.

Beyond that, petrochemicals are used in the manufacturing of a huge number of products that you use in your daily life. We already talked about how inorganic petrochemical molecules are frequently used in the production of fertilizers. But the number of products containing petrochemicals extends far beyond just fertilizer.

Ethylene, the most common petrochemical, has uses in countless consumer products. Derivatives of ethylene can be found in everything from polyester to antifreeze. It’s also used in the production of most plastics and rubbers as well. Glue, meanwhile, is made from another ethylene derivative, propylene.

Aromatic molecules, such as benzene, are used in the production of paints, glues, and other adhesives. They are also a common ingredient in most pesticides and insecticides.

And inorganic synthetic molecules aren’t used for fertilizer alone. They, too, are often used in the production of plastics and rubbers.

In fact, the manufactures of plastic, rubber, polyester, and other synthetic materials is one of the most common uses of petrochemicals in the industrial world.

From there, these products and materials have countless applications all over the world. Fertilizers, plastics, rubber, and countless other materials and products are directly created using petrochemicals.

And without petrochemicals, we wouldn’t have the countless products made using petrochemical products and this page about boiler tub is a perfect example. Tubes like this are often made from plastics and other materials that are created using petrochemicals.

Without the use of these molecules in industry, the world would look like a very different place. If you aren’t in manufacturing, you might not realize it. But these chemicals help create countless products that you use every day.

Petrochemicals Are an Invaluable Resource 

Petrochemicals have been a part of the industry for decades now. And it’s a good thing, too. Petrochemicals are simple and versatile compounds. Without them, countless things that we take for granted wouldn’t be possible.

They’re used in everything from fertilizer to car oils, and from plastics to polyester. Countless modern tools and products rely on petrochemicals for their production.

So whether you work in industry or are curious, take the time to learn more about petrochemicals. We have plenty of resources available to help you do exactly that.

These little molecules are some of the most important chemicals in the industry today. Our world would look very different without them. Let’s give them some appreciation for their work.

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