The history of petrochemicals

Petrochemicals are chemicals products that are produced from petroleum. These chemicals can be split into the two most common classes – olefins, which include ethylene and propylene, and aromatics, which include benzene and toluene. Both classes are produced in oil refineries across the UK by fluid catalytic cracking – olefins can also be produced in chemicals plants by steam cracking, and aromatics are produced by catalytic reforming of naphtha. Both classic of chemicals provide the building blocks for many materials such as solvents, detergents, adhesives, plastics and lubricants materials, and so are extremely useful in day to day life.

These petrochemicals are predominantly produced in a few manufacturing locations are the world. The most prominent producers of petrochemicals include Jubail and Yanbu in Saudi Arabia, Texas and Louisiana in the USA, Teeside in the UK, Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Jamnagar and Dahej in India. The abundance of locations prove that petrochemicals are not only a huge portions of the global chemical industry but, at least for now, are here to stay.

The earliest usage of petrochemicals can actually be dates back to ancient Egypt. The substances that we know as ethylene and polyethylene were produced by ancient Egyptians by using gas and fig plants. Also, bitumen was found as one of the materials used in building the pyramids and in the embalming process that was so popular at the time. These three chemicals can all be derived from petroleum today.

The first chemicals to be made from petroleum, however, were produced in 1872. Carbon black was produced by the partial combustion of natural gas, and was used in the production of synthetic rubber. Fast forward around 50 years and the petrochemical industry was born, when the Standard Oil Company plant was opened in New Jersey, USA which produced propylene. Nowadays, petrochemicals represent the majority of all chemicals that are shipped between continents and accounts for around 40% of the global chemicals market. About 5% of the world’s annual oil supply is utilised to make petrochemicals, so it’s clear that they’re a huge part of today’s chemical industry. To say the petrochemicals industry has come on leaps and bounds since its conception is a huge understatement. From traces of ethylene and bitumen found in Egypt to today’s abundance of different products and uses, the petrochemical industry has come a long way, and will most likely continue to develop and adapt as renewable resources begin to compete.