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Petrochemicals are the chemical products derived from petroleum and natural gas at different stages in the refining process.  In some instances, a specific chemical included among the petrochemicals may also be obtained from other sources, such as coal or vegetable products.

There are three primary classes of petrochemicals:

  1. Olefins are the basis for polymers and oligomers used in plastics, resins, fibers, elastomers, lubricants, and gels. Common olefins include ethylene, propylene, and butylene.
  2. Aromatics are colorless liquids that serve as the building-blocks for many of the intermediates and polymers needed to produce an array of consumer products like paints, solvents, detergents, and adhesives. Common aromatics include benzene, toluene, and xylene.
  3. Synthesis Gas, or SynGas, is a mixture of mostly hydrogen and carbon monoxide, and sometimes other secondary components like carbon dioxide or methane. SynGas is primarily used to make ammonia and methanol, which are needed to produce fertilizers, oxo alcohols, and certain synthetic fuels.

The Petrochemical Industry

Petrochemical products are everywhere and are an integral part of modern society. They include plastics, fertilizers, packaging, clothing, digital devices, medical equipment, adhesives, paints, detergents, tires and many other products. They are also found in many parts of the modern energy system, including solar panels, wind turbine blades, batteries, thermal insulation for buildings, and electric vehicle parts.

According to a 2020 report from Grand View Research, the global petrochemicals market size was USD 441.0 billion in 2019 and is anticipated to witness a CAGR of 5.0% through 2027. The growth of the market for petrochemicals will be driven by rising demand for downstream products from end-use industries and capacity additions in the base chemical industry.

Increasing shale gas exploration activities in the U.S. and Canada are expected to drive the growth of the market for petrochemicals in North America. The countries together accounted for above 90% of shale gas production in 2018 in North America. The shale gas boom in North America has transformed industry participants in the region from high-cost producers of petrochemicals and resins to the lowest-cost due to the reduction of raw material prices. 

Petrochemical Manufacturing

Natural gas liquids and naphtha distilled from crude oil and natural gas during the refining process are generally used as feedstocks to manufacture a wide variety of petrochemicals. Plant operators use a process called cracking to turn hydrocarbons into petrochemicals like ethylene and propylene, which can then be further refined into a multitude of derivatives. These petrochemicals and their derivatives are then used to produce thousands of products that we use every day.


  1. Sami Matar and Lewis F. Hatch (2001), "Chemistry of Petrochemical Processes," Gulf Professional Publishing. ISBN 0-88415-315-0.
  2. 2018, "The Future of Petrochemicals," International Energy Agency,
  3. 2020, "Petrochemicals Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Product," Grand View Research,


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