Chemicals derived from petroleum or natural gas - petrochemicals - are an essential part of the chemical industry today. Petrochemistry is a fairly young industry...
Petrochemistry is a science that can readily be applied to fundamental human needs, such as health, hygiene, housing and food. To many, this comes as a surprise. The word "chemistry" itself conjures up a world of mystery - what it really does is very much taken for granted. Yet it is a fascinating science and an inventive business sector, constantly adapting to new environments and meeting new challenges.
Chemicals derived from petroleum or natural gas - petrochemicals - are an essential part of the chemical industry today. Petrochemistry is a fairly young industry; it only started to grow in the 1940s, more than 80 years after the drilling of the first commercial oil well in 1859. During World War II, the demand for synthetic materials to replace costly and sometimes less efficient products caused the petrochemical industry to develop into a major player in today's economy and society.
Before then, it used to be a tentative, experimental sector, starting with basic materials: synthetic rubbers in the 1900s, Bakelite, the first petrochemical-derived plastic in 1907, the first petrochemical solvents in the 1920s, polystyrene in the 1930s... And it then moved to an incredible variety of areas - from household goods (kitchen appliances, textile, furniture) to medicine (heart pacemakers, transfusion bags), from leisure (running shoes, computers...) to highly specialised fields like archaeology or crime detection.
However, all this is little known. Petrochemicals do not reach the final consumer - the man in the street; they are first sold to customer industries, undergo several transformations, and then go into products that seem to bear no relation whatsoever to the initial raw material. As a result, few of us make the connection between the petrochemical industry and their GP's equipment, their DVDs, food packaging or computers; few realise the amount of scientific efforts that went into these commonplace objects. Although benefiting daily from end products that have been made thanks to the input of the petrochemical industry, more often than not we see no obvious connection between these everyday commodities and petrochemistry.
Where does petrochemistry start, and how does it contribute to turn petrochemicals into the products you see and use everyday?
You can start by reading our flowchart and about the processes that allow crude oil to be turned into petrochemicals and petrochemicals into useful consumer products. You can also take a tour at the timeline of petrochemistry discoveries, and you will soon realise that we owe to petrochemistry a great many items and devices that contribute to making our lives easier, safer and more comfortable. Should you wish to know more about specific petrochemical products, have a look at our petrochemical section.