There have been significant changes in the chemical industry over the last 10 years or so, not only in Europe and in the US but particularly in China, India, and the rest of Asia. With increasing competition worldwide, innovation remains crucial in finding new ways for the industry to satisfy its increasingly sophisticated, demanding and environmentally-conscious consumers.
Basic chemicals, produced in large quantities, are mainly sold within the chemical industry and to other industries before becoming products for the general consumer. For example, ethanoic acid is sold on to make esters, much of which in turn is sold to make paints and at that point sold to the consumer. As another example, Huge quantities of ethylene are transported as a gas by pipeline around Iran and sold to companies making poly (ethylene) and other polymers. These are then sold on to manufacturers of plastic components before being bought by the actual consumer.
Chemicals are divided into three following categories:
1- Basic inorganics
2- Chemicals derived from oil, known as petrochemicals
Basic ‘inorganics’ are a type of chemicals used throughout manufacturing and agriculture. Inorganic compounds are mostly derived from metal and non-metallic minerals. Examples of inorganic chemicals include acids, metals, nitrates, fluoride, silicones, etc. They are produced in very large amounts, some in millions of tonnes a year, and include chlorine, sodium hydroxide, sulfuric and nitric acids and chemicals for fertilizers. Producers of these chemicals worldwide work continuously to reduce costs while satisfying stringent environmental and safety standards.
The term ‘petrochemical’ can be misleading as the same chemicals could increasingly derive from sources other than oil, such as coal and biomass. An example is methanol, commonly produced from oil and natural gas in the Europe and Middle East but from coal in China. Another is ethylene, derived from oil and gas in the Middle East but increasingly from biomass in Brazil. The production of chemicals from petroleum (and increasingly from coal and biomass) has seen many technological changes and the development of industrial sites and chemical parks throughout the world. The hydrocarbons in crude oil and gas, which are mainly straight chain alkanes, are first separated using their differences in boiling point, as is described in the unit Distillation. They are then converted to hydrocarbons that are more useful to the chemical industry, such as branched chain alkanes, alkenes and aromatic hydrocarbons. These processes are described in the unit, cracking and related refinery processes.
In turn, these hydrocarbons are converted into a very wide range of basic chemicals which are immediately useful (petrol, ethanol) or are subjected to further reactions to produce a useful end product (for example, phenol to make resins and ammonia to make fertilizers). The main use for petrochemicals is in the manufacture of a wide range of ‘polymers’.