Petrochemicals: The Silent Worker

Glow light of petrochemical industry on sunset.

In 1872, what was the first petrochemical invention that started the ball rolling for life as we know it today? Did you say gasoline? No, but it rhymes. In 1872, Robert Chesebrough patented a petroleum-derived substance called Vasoline. The next major step forward came in 1895 when Charles Duryea patented the first gasoline-powered automobile. Then came another petrochemical product we would be unable to do without these days, tires. Rubber is naturally white, so the first tires were also white. In the early 1900s, it was discovered that adding carbon black the rubber greatly increased their durability, and the rest was history.

7 Categories of Petrochemicals

According to the Oxford Dictionary petrochemicals are chemicals obtained from petroleum and natural gas. Petroleum is a broad category including both crude oil and petroleum products. There are several categories:

    •  Naphtha: Used to make plastics.
    • Ethylene: Used in paper, consumer electronics, detergents, footwear, and adhesives
    • Propylene: Used in paints, furniture, textiles, pharmaceuticals, and food packaging
    • Benzene: Creates pharmaceuticals, furniture, electronics, and food packaging
    • Methanol: Used in thermal insulation and building construction
    • Toluene: Creates inks and sports equipment
    • Phenol and Cumene: Used for creating penicillin and aspirin

Let’s go shopping

It is hard to imagine what life was life before penicillin. And going to a doctor or hospital before flexible, plastic tubing is painful to think about. It’s almost impossible to buy a week’s worth of groceries without bringing home some petrochemical products. Before plastic wrap, meats and cheeses would have been wrapped in butcher paper and tied with string. It wasn’t the most sanitary method. And there were no sandwich bags for lunch or freezer bags to store food. There were no plastic bottles lightening the load. If all liquids were still stored and shipped in glass containers, the weight would be enormous. As it is, the lighter, more forgiving plastic reduces shipping costs by saving on fuel.

Thank you, fossil fuels

It is easy to see why petrochemicals represent 40% of the world chemical market, with about 5% of the world’s oil supply going to petrochemical production. There are many more thousands of products than can be named here, everything from artificial limbs to plastic zippers. Fossil fuels are the silent workers that improve the quality of life for those who are ill or disabled and make life safer and more convenient for all of us. 


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