Also called petroleum distillates, are chemical products derived from petroleum. Some chemical compounds made from petroleum are also obtained from other fossil fuels, such as coal or natural gas, or renewable sources such as corn or sugar cane.

The two most common petrochemical classes are olefins (including ethylene and propylene) and aromatics (including benzene, toluene and xylene isomers). Oil refineries produce olefins and aromatics by fluid catalytic cracking of petroleum fractions. Chemical plants produce olefins by steam cracking of natural gas liquids like ethane and propane. Aromatics are produced by catalytic reforming of naphtha. Olefins and aromatics are the building-blocks for a wide range of materials such as solvents, detergents, and adhesives. Olefins are the basis for polymers and oligomers used in plastics, resins, fibers, elastomers, lubricants, and gels.

Global ethylene and propylene production are about 115 million tonnes and 70 million tonnes per annum, respectively. Aromatics production is approximately 70 million tonnes. The largest petrochemical industries are located in the USA and Western Europe; however, major growth in new production capacity is in the Middle East and Asia. There is substantial inter-regional petrochemical trade.

Primary petrochemicals are divided into three groups depending on their chemical structure:

  • Olefins includes ethylene, propylene, and butadiene. Ethylene and propylene are important sources of industrial chemicals and plastics products. Butadiene is used in making synthetic rubber.
  • Aromatics includes benzene, toluene, and xylenes. Benzene is a raw material for dyes and synthetic detergents, and benzene and toluene for isocyanates MDI and TDI used in making polyurethanes. Manufacturers use xylenes to produce plastics and synthetic fibers.
  • Synthesis gas is a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen used to make ammonia and methanol. Ammonia is used to make the fertilizer urea and methanol is used as a solvent and chemical intermediate.

The prefix "petro-" is an arbitrary abbreviation of the word "petroleum"; since "petro-" is Ancient Greek for "rock" and "oleum" means "oil". Therefore, the etymologically correct term would be "oleochemicals". However, the term oleochemical is used to describe chemicals derived from plant and animal fats.

Manufacturing locations

Like commodity chemicals, petrochemicals are made on a very large scale. Petrochemical manufacturing units differ from commodity chemical plants in that they often produce a number of related products. Compare this with specialty chemical and fine chemical manufacture where products are made in discrete batch processes.

Petrochemicals are predominantly made in a few manufacturing locations around the world, for example in Texas & Louisiana in the USA, in Teesside in the Northeast of England in the United Kingdom, in Rotterdam in the Netherlands and in Jamnagar & Dahej in Gujarat India & Iran ,Not all of the petrochemical or commodity chemical materials produced by the chemical industry are made in one single location but groups of related materials are often made in adjacent manufacturing plants to induce industrial symbiosis as well as material and utility efficiency and other economies of scale. This is known in chemical engineering terminology as integrated manufacturing. Speciality and fine chemical companies are sometimes found in similar manufacturing locations as petrochemicals but, in most cases, they do not need the same level of large scale infrastructure (e.g., pipelines, storage, ports and power, etc.) and therefore can be found in multi-sector business parks.

The large scale petrochemical manufacturing locations have clusters of manufacturing units that share utilities and large scale infrastructure such as power stations, storage tanks, port facilities, road and rail terminals. In the United Kingdom for example, there are 4 main locations for such manufacturing: near the River Mersey in Northwest England, on the Humber on the East coast of Yorkshire, in Grangemouth near the Firth of Forth in Scotland and in Teesside as part of the Northeast of England Process Industry Cluster (NEPIC). To demonstrate the clustering and integration, some 50% of the United Kingdom's petrochemical and commodity chemicals are produced by the NEPIC industry cluster companies in Teesside.


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