Chemical products

Chemical industry

The chemical industry comprises the companies that produce industrial chemicals. Central to the modern world economy, it converts raw materials (oil, natural gas, air, water, metals, and minerals) into more than 70,000 different products.

St. Bernard Parish, LA, August 30, 2008 -- St. Bernard Parish oil refinery that was severely damaged during Hurricane Katrina. Author: Jacinta Quesada


Polymers and plastics, especially polyethylene, polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene terephthalate, polystyrene and polycarbonate comprise about 80% of the industry’s output worldwide. Chemicals are used to make a wide variety of consumer goods, as well as thousands inputs to agriculture, manufacturing, construction, and service industries. The chemical industry itself consumes 26 percent of its own output. Major industrial customers include rubber and plastic products, textiles, apparel, petroleum refining, pulp and paper, and primary metals. Chemicals is nearly a $3 trillion global enterprise, and the EU and U.S. chemical companies are the world's largest producers.

Product category breakdown

Sales of the chemical business can be divided into a few broad categories, including basic chemicals (about 35 to 37 percent of the dollar output), life sciences (30 percent), specialty chemicals (20 to 25 percent) and consumer products (about 10 percent).

Basic chemicals

Basic chemicals, or "commodity chemicals" are a broad chemical category including polymers, bulk petrochemicals and intermediates, other derivatives and basic industrials, inorganic chemicals, and fertilizers. Typical growth rates for basic chemicals are about 0.5 to 0.7 times GDP. Product prices are generally less than fifty cents per pound.

Polymers, the largest revenue segment at about 33 percent of the basic chemicals dollar value, includes all categories of plastics and man-made fibers. The major markets for plastics are packaging, followed by home construction, containers, appliances, pipe, transportation, toys, and games.
  • The largest-volume polymer product, polyethylene (PE), is used mainly in packaging films and other markets such as milk bottles, containers, and pipe.
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), another large-volume product, is principally used to make pipe for construction markets as well as siding and, to a much smaller extent, transportation and packaging materials.
  • Polypropylene (PP), similar in volume to PVC, is used in markets ranging from packaging, appliances, and containers to clothing and carpeting.
  • Polystyrene (PS), another large-volume plastic, is used principally for appliances and packaging as well as toys and recreation.
  • The leading man-made fibers include polyester, nylon, polypropylene, and acrylics, with applications including apparel, home furnishings, and other industrial and consumer use.
The principal raw materials for polymers are bulk petrochemicals.Chemicals in the bulk petrochemicals and intermediates are primarily made from liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), natural gas, and crude oil. Their sales volume is close to 30 percent of overall basic chemicals. Typical large-volume products include ethylene, propylene, benzene, toluene, xylenes, methanol, vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), styrene, butadiene, and ethylene oxide. These chemicals are the starting points for most polymers and other organic chemicals as well as much of the specialty chemicals category.

Other derivatives and basic industrials include synthetic rubber, surfactants, dyes and pigments, turpentine, resins, carbon black, explosives, and rubber products and contribute about 20 percent of the basic chemicals' external sales.

Inorganic chemicals (about 12 percent of the revenue output) make up the oldest of the chemical categories. Products include salt, chlorine, caustic soda, soda ash, acids (such as nitric acid, phosphoric acid, and sulfuric acid), titanium dioxide, and hydrogen peroxide.

Fertilizers are the smallest category (about 6 percent) and include phosphates, ammonia, and potash chemicals.

Life sciences

Life sciences (about 30 percent of the dollar output of the chemistry business) include differentiated chemical and biological substances, pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, animal health products, vitamins, and pesticides. While much smaller in volume than other chemical sectors, their products tend to have very high prices—over ten dollars per pound—growth rates of 1.5 to 6 times GDP, and research and development spending at 15 to 25 percent of sales. Life science products are usually produced with very high specifications and are closely scrutinized by government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration. Pesticides, also called "crop protection chemicals", are about 10 percent of this category and include herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides.

Specialty chemicals

Specialty chemicals are a category of relatively high valued, rapidly growing chemicals with diverse end product markets. Typical growth rates are one to three times GDP with prices over a dollar per pound. They are generally characterized by their innovative aspects. Products are sold for what they can do rather than for what chemicals they contain. Products include electronic chemicals, industrial gases, adhesives and sealants as well as coatings, industrial and institutional cleaning chemicals, and catalysts. Coatings make up about 15 percent of specialty chemicals sales, with other products ranging from 10 to 13 percent. Specialty Chemicals are sometimes referred to as "fine chemicals"

Consumer products

Consumer products include direct product sale of chemicals such as soaps, detergents, and cosmetics. Typical growth rates are 0.8 to 1.0 times GDP.

Every year, the American Chemistry Council tabulates the U.S. production volume of the top 100 basic chemicals. In 2000, the aggregate production volume of the top 100 chemicals totalled 502 million tons, up from 397 million tons in 1990. Inorganic chemicals tend to be the largest volume, though much smaller in dollar revenue terms due to their low prices. The top 11 of the 100 chemicals in 2000 were sulfuric acid (44 million tons), nitrogen (34), ethylene (28), oxygen (27), lime (22), ammonia (17), propylene (16), polyethylene (15), chlorine (13), phosphoric acid (13) and diammonium phosphates (12).


The largest corporate producers worldwide, each with plants in numerous countries, include BASF, Bayer, Braskem, Celanese/Ticona, Degussa, Dow, DuPont, Eastman Chemical Company, ExxonMobil, INEOS, Mitsubishi, PPG Industries, SABIC and Shell, along with thousands of smaller firms.

In the U.S. there are 170 major chemical companies. They operate internationally with more than 2,800 facilities outside the U.S. and 1,700 foreign subsidiaries or affiliates operating. The U.S. chemical output is $400 billion a year. The U.S. industry records large trade surpluses and employs more than a million people in the United States alone. The chemical industry is also the second largest consumer of energy in manufacturing and spends over $5 billion annually on pollution abatement.

In Europe, especially Germany, the chemical, plastics and rubber sectors are among the largest industrial sectors. Together they generate about 3.2 million jobs in more than 60,000 companies. Since 2000 the chemical sector alone has represented 2/3 of the entire manufacturing trade surplus of the EU. The chemical sector accounts for 12% of the EU manufacturing industry's added value.

The chemical industry has shown rapid growth for more than fifty years. The fastest-growing areas have involved the manufacture of synthetic organic polymers used as plastics, fibres and elastomers. Historically and presently the chemical industry has been concentrated in three areas of the world, Western Europe, North America and Japan (the Triad). The European Community remains the largest producer area followed by the USA and Japan.

The traditional dominance of chemical production by the Triad countries is being challenged by changes in feedstock availability and price, labour cost, energy cost, differential rates of economic growth and environmental pressures. Instrumental in the changing structure of the global chemical industry has been the growth in China, India, Korea, the Middle East, South East Asia, Nigeria, and Brazil.


As accepted by chemical engineers, the chemical industry involves the use of chemical processes such as chemical reactions and refining methods to produce a wide variety of solid, liquid, and gaseous materials. Most of these products are used in manufacture of other items, although a smaller number are used directly by consumers. Solvents, pesticides, lye, washing soda, and portland cement are a few examples of product used by consumers.

Diagram showing Turbine Generator with example auxiliary systems in a thermal power station. Author: H Padleckas
This is a process diagram of a turbine generator. Knowing how to design a sustainable process in which the system can withstand or manipulate process halting conditions such as; heat, fiction, pressure, emissions, contaminants, is essential for engineers working to produce a sustainable process for use in the chemical industry.

The industry includes manufacturers of inorganic- and organic-industrial chemicals, ceramic products, petrochemicals, agrochemicals, polymers and rubber (elastomers), oleochemicals (oils, fats, and waxes), explosives, fragrances and flavors. Examples of these products are shown in the Table below.

 Product TypeExamples
inorganic industrialammonia, nitrogen, sodium hydroxide, sulfuric acid, nitric acid
organic industrialacrylonitrile, phenol, ethylene oxide, urea
ceramic productssilica brick, frit
petrochemicalsethylene, propylene, benzene, styrene
agrochemicalsfertilizers, insecticides, herbicides
polymerspolyethylene, Bakelite, polyester
elastomerspolyisoprene, neoprene, polyurethane
oleochemicalslard, soybean oil, stearic acid
explosivesnitroglycerin, ammonium nitrate, nitrocellulose
fragrances and flavorsbenzyl benzoate, coumarin, vanillin

Although the pharmaceutical industry is often considered a chemical industry , it has many different characteristics that puts it in a separate category. Other closely related industries include petroleum, glass, paint, ink, sealant, adhesive, and food processing manufacturers.

Chemical processes such as chemical reactions are used in chemical plants to form new substances in various types of reaction vessels. In many cases the reactions are conducted in special corrosion resistant equipment at elevated temperatures and pressures with the use of catalysts. The products of these reactions are separated using a variety of techniques including distillation especially fractional distillation, precipitation, crystallization, adsorption, filtration, sublimation, and drying.

The novel chemical reactor reduces the amount of solvents used from 1000 litres to just 4 litres. Author: Fribbi

The processes and product or products are usually tested during and after manufacture by dedicated instruments and on-site quality controllaboratories to ensure safe operation and to assure that the product will meet required specifications. The products are packaged and delivered by many methods, including pipelines, tank-cars, and tank-trucks (for both solids and liquids), cylinders, drums, bottles, and boxes. Chemical companies often have a research and development laboratory for developing and testing products and processes. These facilities may include pilot plants, and such research facilities may be located at a site separate from the production plant(s).


Chandler (2005) argues the relative success or failure of American and European chemical companies is explained with reference to three themes: "barriers to entry," "strategic boundaries," and "limits to growth." He says successful chemical firms followed definite "paths of learning" whereby first movers and close followers created entry barriers to would-be rivals by building "integrated learning bases" (or organizational capabilities) which enabled them to develop, produce, distribute, and sell in local and then worldwide markets. Also they followed a "virtuous strategy" of reinvestment of retained earnings and growth through diversification, particularly to utilize "dynamic" scale and scope economies relating to new learning in launching "next generation" products.

Companies in the 21st century

The chemical industry includes large, medium, and small companies located worldwide. Companies with sales of chemical products greater than $10 billion dollars in fiscal year 2007 appear listed below. For some of these companies the chemical sales might represent only a portion of their total sales; (for example ExxonMobil's chemical sales covered only 8.7 percent of their total sales in 2005).

COMPANY, HEADQUARTERS2007 Chemical Sales, billions[1]RankCountry
BASF SE, Ludwigshafen, Germany$65.31Germany
Dow Chemical, Midland, Michigan, USA$53.52United States
INEOS, Lyndhurst, UK$43.63United Kingdom
LyondellBasell, Houston, Texas, USA$42.84United States
Formosa Plastics, Taiwan$31.95Republic of China
DuPont, Wilmington, Delaware, USA$28.56United States
Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia$26.47Saudi Arabia
Bayer, AG, Leverkusen, Germany$24.28Germany
Mitsubishi Chemical, Tokyo, Japan$22.29Japan
Akzo Nobel/Imperial Chemical Industries(ICI), Amsterdam/London$19.910NetherlandsUnited Kingdom
Air Liquide, Paris, France$16.311France
Sumitomo Chemical, Tokyo, Japan$15.212Japan
Evonik Industries, AG, Essen, Germany$15.013Germany
Mitsui Chemicals, Tokyo, Japan$14.314Japan
Asahi Kasei, Tokyo, Japan$13.815Japan
Toray Industries, Tokyo, Japan$13.116Japan
Chevron Phillips, The Woodlands, Texas, USA$12.517United States
DSM NV, Heerlen, Netherlands$12.118Netherlands
PPG Industries, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA$11.219United States
Shin-Etsu Chemical Co., Ltd., Tokyo, Japan$11.120Japan

Just as companies emerge as the main producers of the chemical industry, we can also look on a more global scale to how industrialized countries rank, with regards to the billions of dollars worth of production a country or region could export. Though the business of chemistry is worldwide in scope, the bulk of the world’s $3.7 trillion chemical output is accounted for by only a handful of industrialized nations. The United States alone produced $689 billion, 18.6 percent of the total world chemical output in 2008.[2]

Global Chemical Shipments by Country/Region (billions of dollars)[2]1998200020022004200620082009
United States of America416.7449.2462.5540.9657.7664.1689.3
North America456.9498.0512.6602.7733.4742.8774.6
Latin America105.7106.598.2130.0167.4185.9228.8
United Kingdom70.366.869.991.3107.8118.2123.4
Western Europe503.1490.4524.4721.9822.4935.41,076.8
Central/Eastern Europe46.149.355.677.1108.0131.3165.1
Africa & Middle East52.759.260.486.4109.6124.2160.4
Asia-Pacific excluding Japan215.2276.1300.5463.9668.8795.5993.2
Other Asia/Pacific24.830.933.345.562.972.290.8
Total world shipments1573.51719.01748.82325.62858.13160.73696.8

See also

  • Fred Aftalion A History of the International Chemical Industry. University of Pennsylvania Press. 1991. online version
  • E. N. Brandt. Growth Company: Dow Chemical's First Century. Michigan State University Press. xxii+ 650 pp. Appendices, Select bibliography and index. ISBN 0-87013-426-4. online review
  • Alfred D. Chandler. Shaping the Industrial Century: The Remarkable Story of the Evolution of the Modern Chemical and Pharmaceutical Industries. Harvard University Press, 2005. 366 pp. ISBN 0-674-01720-X. chapters 3-6 deal with DuPont, Dow Chemicals, Monsanto, American Cyanamid, Union Carbide, and Allied in USA; and European chemical producers, Bayer, Farben, and ICI.
  • Micheal McCoy, et al., "Facts & Figures of the Chemical Industry", Chemical & Engineering News, 84(29), July 10, 2006, pp. 35–72.
  • Shreve, R. Norris, and Joseph A. Brink Jr. The Chemical Process Industries. 4th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 1977.

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