What happens when raw materials get at the refinery and when does petrochemistry step in?

The job of the refinery is to produce physical and chemical changes in crude oil and natural gas, through an arrangement of extremely specialised manufacturing processes.

One of these processes is distillation, i.e. the separation of heavy crude oil into lighter groups (called fractions) of hydrocarbons. Two of these fractions are familiar to consumers. One, fuel oil, is used for heating of for diesel fuel in automotive applications. Another one is naphtha, used in gasoline and also as the primary source from which petrochemicals are derived.

Petrochemistry gets its raw material -known as feedstocks- from the refinery: naphtha, components of natural gas such as butane, and some of the by-products of oil refining processes, such as ethane and propane. These feedstocks are then processed through an operation that is known as cracking.

Cracking is simply the process of breaking down heavy oil molecules into lighter, more valuable fractions. In steam cracking, high temperatures are used; when a catalyst is used it is known as catalytic cracking. The plant were these operations are conducted is called a cracker.

Once these operations are concluded, new products are obtained, the building blocks of the petrochemical industry: olefins, i.e. mainly ethylene, propylene, and the so-called C4 derivatives, including butadiene – and aromatics, so called because of their distinctive perfumed smell, i.e. mainly benzene, toluene and the xylenes.

Petroleum: in the beginning

Petroleum begins with crude oil and natural gas.

Crude oil and natural gas occur in the earth’s crust; they were formed millions of years ago, as a result of slow and lengthy processes from decayed plants and animals, buried deep into the earth’s crust under tremendous pressure.

Crude oil and natural gas are extracted from the ground, on land or under the oceans, by sinking an oil well. They are then transported to refineries, by ship and/or by pipeline, lines of pipe equipped with pumps, valves and various other control devices specially adapted for moving liquids petroleum and gases.

What does the industry represent in economic terms?

In 2016, the European chemical industry contributed to 15,1% of the world’s chemical sales valued at €3.360 billion.

The EU chemical industry posted sales of €597 billion in 2016. Petrochemicals accounted for 25,9% of EU chemical sales.

Can I become a member of Petrochemicals Europe?

Petrochemicals Europe is open to European cracker operators manufacturing ethylene and propylene from steam cracking and/or other olefins and/or aromatics for chemical use, and/or major first stage petrochemical derivatives (excluding polymers).

Written application is subject to approval by the existing members of Petrochemicals Europe and the annual membership fee is calculated on the ethylene nameplate capacity.

Can I become of member of a Sector Group?

There are currently 18 non-profit sector groups and 2 affiliated sector groups within the Petrochemistry Industry Sector.

Each of them deals with specific substances addressing their own set of issues and operating in accordance with the Cefic Statutes and By Laws and are eligible for membership of specific sector groups companies manufacturing the related substance(s) and having operation within the territory of Europe. Please contact us for any further information.

Are there any statistical data available?

Our Facts & Figures sub-section provides on a yearly basis a review of the petrochemicals industry’s performance.

This includes a review of the Western European markets, an update of the European crackers’ nameplate capacity and capacity and production for the four main petrochemical building blocks (ethylene, propylene, benzene and aromatics). Production capacity is also available on a quarterly basis. Some sector groups collect statistics for their own line(s) of product(s) but these are the property of the sector group’s members and are not available in the public domain.

How can I identify the person in charge of specific topics and/or specific substances within your organisation?

Please visit our Petrochemicals Europe Team section as this will allow you to identify who handles any of the sector groups within the Cefic Petrochemistry Industry Sector’s portfolio.

If you are looking for the person(s) in charge of specific topics, please refer to the Cefic Click-in Platform (available to Cefic members only) or send us your request via the contact form. You may also consult the Cefic Chemical Library via the Cefic Click-in Members’ Platform.