What is a Petrochemical?

Mary McMahon

A petrochemical is a chemical which has been derived from petroleum or natural gas. These chemicals are typically extracted during the refining process as crude oil and gas are distilled or cracked, and they can be utilized in a wide variety of ways. The explosion of the industry in the 20th century led to a proliferation of products which involved petrochemical components, and demand for these chemicals is constantly on the rise as people develop new products and new uses for such products. Refineries which process such chemicals can be found all over the world.

A pumpjack brings oil to the surface.
A pumpjack brings oil to the surface.

Some of the primary petrochemicals obtained in the refining process include toluene, benzene, ethylene, and propylene. These primary chemicals can be further refined into intermediate or derivative products which can be used in the manufacture of end-use goods. Most of the petrochemicals are hydrocarbons, reflecting the high concentration of hydrogen and carbon in crude oil, and they are distinctive, though chemically similar, from fuels refined from crude oil.

Refineries around the world process petrochemicals.
Refineries around the world process petrochemicals.

A huge variety of products are made with petrochemicals, including plastics, soaps, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, pesticides, detergents, flooring, solvents, and epoxies. Synthetic fibers, rubber, and other materials are also manufactured from petrochemicals. Most people interact with numerous such products every day, from the synthetic fibers used in a fleece jacket on a cool day to the plastics used in the construction of a steering wheel.

Many petrochemicals are refined from crude oil.
Many petrochemicals are refined from crude oil.

Refineries can adjust their production of a primary petrochemical to meet demand in a variety of ways. As crude oil is refined, it can be treated with fractional distillation, in which it is heated to separate out the various components for use, or it can be “cracked” with a catalyst which breaks up hydrocarbon chains to create desired products. Because petrochemicals are commonly in high demand, refineries must be able to act quickly to take advantage of favorable pricing and demand.

Petrochemicals are made from oil or natural gas.
Petrochemicals are made from oil or natural gas.

The refining and production of end-stage petrochemical products has been criticized on the basis of environmental concerns. Extraction and transport of crude oil can have a very negative environmental impact, and the refining process can be highly polluting and sometimes dangerous for neighboring communities. Petrochemicals are also very slow to break down in the natural environment, raising issues about the proper use and disposal of consumer products. These products are also not renewable, because they come from resources built up over the course of millions of years, which means that once the world's deposits of crude oil and natural gas are exhausted, a serious problem could emerge for the petrochemical industry.

Some treatment systems rely on microorganisms that eat away oil pollution.
Some treatment systems rely on microorganisms that eat away oil pollution.
Gasoline, kerosene and petroleum are refined from crude oil in refineries.
Gasoline, kerosene and petroleum are refined from crude oil in refineries.

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Discussion Comments


@SkyWhisperer - I think that government regulations are more of a problem than anything else. There are many areas where we could explore for oil; however government regulations are strangling exploration.

It’s not the absence of reserves that is the issue, it’s the political willpower to use what we already have. That’s my two cents.


@nony - The answer to your question is that renewable resources could replace petrochemicals.

Products made from wood could be refined in such a way that they could be used to make those everyday household goods. These products could then be recycled, with no adverse harm to the environment.

So in my opinion, while you raise a good point about petrochemicals being necessary (at least for the short term), they are hardly the slam dunk that you think they are.

The fact is, necessity is the mother of invention. If we were pressed into a situation where we could no longer use petrochemicals to make stuff, we would find alternative, inexpensive solutions in a hurry.

As long as oil is held out as a backup plan, however, we will only trudge more slowly towards eventual migration to a green economy.


The petrochemicals industry is an important part of the oil and natural gas industry, in my opinion.

As the article correctly points out, these petrochemicals form the basis of many of our everyday products that use plastics. This fact is often ignored by the people that continually criticize the oil industry and insist that alternative energy is the only way to go.

If you eliminate the petroleum based products entirely, you will still have to find another way to develop the household goods that used to be made by petrochemicals.

In other words, it’s more than oil and gas. How will you replace those petrochemicals? You can use synthetic substitutes, but they will be more expensive.

So in my opinion, we will need petrochemicals and the oil industry for quite some time. We may be able to phase out petroleum completely at some time in the future, but not now.

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