Petrochemicals 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.
This article focuses on organic compounds that are not burned as fuel (see also Petroleum product).
Two 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 ~110 million tonnes and ~65 million tonnes per annum respectively. Aromatics production is ~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:
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.