A Look Into the Petrochemicals Industry

Petrochemicals are a vital part of our lives, and it is hard to imagine modern existence without them. In fact, every part of our life today—from the food we eat to the household products we use, and the homes in which we live—has its origins in the petroleum industry. Furthermore, in today’s world, petrochemical products, which are chemical products made from fossil fuels such as petroleum (crude oil), coal, and natural gas, are the foundation of virtually every modern industry.

Petrochemical-derived products

Petrochemicals have enabled the creation of novel materials and products in countless manufacturing industries and in other fields such as agriculture, communication, and transportation. For example, in the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the latest modern aircraft to be launched, modern synthetic materials comprise about half of its primary structure. In addition, most of the tools on which we depend for daily existence—such as cars, computers, cell phones, children’s toys, pesticides, fertilizers, household cleaning products, and pharmaceutical drugs—are derived from petrochemicals.

According to the American Petroleum Institute (API), “The oil and natural gas industry is the backbone of the American economy.” This industry provides and supports over 9 million American jobs and adds about $1 trillion to the U.S. economy (about 7.5% of GDP), according to the API. “Since 2000, the oil and natural gas industry has invested $1.7 trillion in U.S. capital projects to advance all forms of energy, including alternatives.”

The U.S. petroleum industry was born about 150 years ago, in 1859, when Col. Edwin L. Drake struck oil in Pennsylvania by drilling the first commercial well. That discovery marked the beginning of an era when this magical black fluid became the lifeblood of our civilization and changed the face of the earth in a very short period of time. In merely a century after oil was struck, we went from riding horse-drawn carriages to automobiles to planes to, finally, landing on the moon in 1969. Oil made America the world’s richest superpower.

The basis of petrochemicals are fossilized fuels, which are formed from the anaerobic decomposition of plants and animals that are buried in the earth’s crust and subjected to intense heat and pressure over hundreds of millions of years. These fossil fuels, which remain the primary source of our energy needs today, are finite. Based on the rapid global consumption of petroleum in the last century, some estimates suggest that we may reach the peak of petroleum extraction by 2050.

Petrochemicals are classified into three main categories based on their chemical structure: 1) olefins, which include ethylene, propylene, and butadiene, form the basis of industrial chemicals, plastic products, and synthetic rubber; 2) aromatics, which include benzene, toluene, and xylene, are among raw materials for products such as dyes and synthetic detergents, plastics, and synthetic fibers; and 3) synthesis gas, which is a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, is used to make ammonia and methanol. Ammonia is crucial for the production of fertilizers, and methanol serves as an important solvent and raw material.

Some of the major players in this industry include: BASF (Ludwigshafen, Germany), Dow Chemical (Midland, MI), Sinopec (Beijing, China), ExxonMobil Chemical (Houston, TX), Royal Dutch/Shell (The Hague, The Netherlands), LyondellBasell Industries (Rotterdam, The Netherlands), SABIC (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia), Mitsubishi Chemical (Tokyo, Japan), Ineos (Lausanne, Switzerland), and DuPont (Wilmington, DE).

Effect of petrochemical products on health and the environment

While the petrochemicals industry has provided us with many valuable products, petroleum-derived chemicals can also be hazardous and toxic to the health of living beings and the earth’s ecosystems. With the advent of more advanced research and sophisticated instruments, we are now able to measure the presence and impact of petrochemicals and their derivatives on human physiology.

Many of these chemicals are released into the ground, and air, and water and can have adverse effects on our environment and human life. Depending on their use, since petrochemicals can be absorbed through the skin or might be ingested, they can accumulate in human tissues and organs such as the brain and liver and can cause brain, nerve and liver damage, birth defects, cancer, asthma, hormonal disorders, and allergies. We are still in the early days of understanding the adverse effects of petrochemicals on our health and environment.

For example, bisphenol A (BPA), which is used in many plastic-based products and to manufacture epoxy resins, has been implicated in having an estrogenic effect on humans. It also plays a potential role in disturbing the normal balance of other hormones in humans (such as the thyroid hormone) and can have a multitude of health effects related to this. In recent years, BPA has gained increased attention since baby bottles made of plastic can result in the ingestion of BPA by infants, leading to accumulation in tissues that can affect normal development.

The latest analytical tools and platforms are critical for both manufacturing petrochemicals, as well as understanding the effects of petrochemicals on living systems and the environment. Significant players in the petrochemicals analysis space include companies that are focused on gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and liquid chromatography-MS (LC-MS) such as Bruker (Billerica, MA), PerkinElmer (Shelton, CT), Thermo Fisher Scientific (Waltham, MA), Agilent (Santa Clara, CA), Restek (Bellefonte, PA), and Waters (Milford, MA). Other companies, such as Metrohm (Herisau, Switzerland), OI Analytical (College Station, TX), and Shimadzu (Columbia, MD), provide innovative solutions for petrochemicals analysis.

As the concern over the safety of petrochemical products has increased, existing instrumentation companies are providing analytical solutions to help address these challenges. For example, on its Web site, Waters highlights the use of its technologies to identify 24 carcinogenic aromatic amines more rapidly than conventional HPLC methods. As Waters states, “In compliance with global regulations, and in order to offer consumers safer products, major textile and leather product manufacturers and retailers have issued product certifications and QC protocols that limit the maximum amount of carcinogenic aromatic amines to no more than 20 mg/kg. To be more cost effective, there are growing demands for faster and more accurate analytical methods to test for these aromatic amines in consumer products.”

Future of the petrochemicals industry

While the latest analytical tools help identify the potential toxicities of petrochemicals, they also play an important role in the future of the industry since they can be used to develop potentially safer petroleum-derived products and novel materials.

There is no doubt that petrochemicals have revolutionized human civilization in the last century, enabling leaps in innovation across industries and opening doors to new fields that could not have existed before. Yet, as petrochemicals have permeated our lives, we are also coming to better understand the potentially harmful ways in which they can permeate our bodies and ecosystems.

Thankfully, continuous innovations in the analytical instrumentation and tools space enable us to keep up with the petrochemicals industry by monitoring its effects, especially the potentially harmful ones. Hopefully, in the future, with the help of cutting-edge analytical technologies, we will be able to further harness the power of petrochemicals to enable future innovations that continue to improve the world in which we live today.

Mukta M. Shukla, M.S. is co-Founder of Glygen Corp.,Columbia, MD, and a Consulting Editor, American Laboratory/Labcompare; e-mail: mshukla@americanlaboratory.com. Ashok K. Shukla, Ph.D., D.Sc. is co-Founder and President of Glygen Corp., and a Consulting Editor, American Laboratory/Labcompare.