Why are Petrochemicals Important?

It is difficult to understand the importance of petrochemicals without first looking at the world of organic chemistry.  Organic chemistry began as a chemistry discipline related to vegetable or animal sources.  Prior to 1850, people believed that organic chemicals had to come from living organisms and could never be synthesized.  We have found over the years that organic chemicals can come from a variety of sources and can actually be synthesized in a laboratory.

Organic chemistry is bound by the laws of physics and nature.  These physical laws place restrictions on what can and cannot be done when trying to make a chemical compound.  For instance, a molecule (i.e., a chemical) is made up of atoms (e.g., sodium, carbon, chlorine, etc.) that are in specific locations or positions on the molecule.  In organic chemistry, the goal is to take the atoms from one molecule and move them to locations on another, different molecule so that the target molecule takes on a specific function or behavior.  The laws of physics dictate if, how and when those atoms can be moved.  This is exactly how the base chemicals for products ranging from plastics, to makeup, to aspirin are created, only on a very large, commercial scale.

Organic chemistry on a commercial scale affects just about every other manufacturing sector.  Organic chemicals are used as raw materials, ingredients, processing agents, performance additives and in many other applications. Most, if not all, finished goods depend on organic chemicals.

Petrochemicals are the fundamental building blocks for organic chemistry; therefore an abundant supply of petrochemicals is vital to the strength of the United States manufacturing industry.


What Exactly is a Petrochemical?

When people hear the term “petrochemical,” they often think of plastics or some other complex product derived from oil.  Either that or they think of petroleum-based solvents like those used in paints and coatings.  In the strictest scientific sense, petrochemicals are a set of very specific chemical compounds, which can be made from oil, natural gas, coal, plants or other sources.  The vast majority of petrochemicals, however, are derived from oil or natural gas.  Oil and natural gas are used as feedstocks (the main raw material used in the manufacture of a product) to make approximately 99% of U.S. petrochemicals.

The most basic of these petrochemicals are considered the building blocks for organic chemistry.

Basic Petrochemicals:

From this base set of petrochemicals come a very large number of other chemicals, which are called, “petrochemical derivatives” or simply, “derivatives.”  The derivatives are grouped according to how many steps it takes to convert the basic compound into the new derivative.  For example, it takes one step to convert ethylene to acetaldehyde; therefore acetaldehyde can be considered a first-derivative of ethylene.  If you go one step further and convert the acetaldehyde to acetic anhydride (which is used to make aspirin), then the acetic anhydride is a second-derivative of ethylene. Technically, any manufactured item containing carbon and hydrogen atoms is a petrochemical derivative.

Many petrochemicals are produced using extreme temperatures (over 1500⁰ F) and pressures (over 1000 psi).  This requires large amounts of energy and sophisticated engineering.  Because of these extreme operating conditions, energy consumption accounts for a significant portion of the total cost of production.  As energy costs rise, the cost of doing business also rises.  Access to inexpensive and reliable energy sources (such as natural gas) is essential to allowing the U.S. petrochemical industry to remain competitive in an increasingly global marketplace.


About AFPM

AFPM, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (formerly known as NPRA, the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association) is a trade association representing high-tech American manufacturers of virtually the entire U.S. supply of gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, other fuels and home heating oil, as well as the petrochemicals used as building blocks for thousands of vital products in daily life. AFPM members make modern life possible and keep America moving and growing as they meet the needs of our nation and local communities, strengthen economic and national security, and support 2 million American jobs.