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Fig 1 chem emissons

Commodity Chemicals

The dual nature of chem industry: change-driver or energy-consumer?


Chemical products touch every aspect of modern-day life, being widely used in various sectors such as health, energy, mobility, and housing, ensuring high living standards of modern society.


Chemical & petrochemical sector together makes one of the most energy-intensive industries, as can be seen in Figure 1 (total final energy consumption by industry sector in European Union (EU), in 2021).  It is no coincidence that the sector is the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the EU (925 million tons of CO2 in 2021) [CEE, 2021].


After China, the EU was the world's second largest chemical producer in 2021, with the EU27 chemical sales increasing to EUR 594 Billion.  Figure 2 shows the world's top chemical industry companies (obs: operating income was affected by inflation in 2022).

Figure 1:  Total final energy consumption by industry sector in EU, in 2021


Figure 2:  Top chemical industry companies in the world

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Fossil fuel use


The chemical industry is unique in its fossil fuels use.  While most industries use fossil fuels as energy source, the chemical industry uses about half of the sector's demand as feedstock: fossil resources are used as raw material for a variety of widely used products like plastics, fertilizers, detergents or tires.


The chemical industry accounts for 14% of the total primary demand for crude oil and 8% for natural gas: ammonia, methanol, ethylene, and propylene are the most important basic chemicals used as the starting materials for a large number of industrial downstream products.  In 2016, crude oil and natural gas represented 87% of feedstocks in the carbon-based chemical industry {DENA, 2029].


Commodity chemicals


Commodity chemicals (bulk commodities or bulk chemicals) are a group of chemicals that are made on a very large scale to satisfy global markets in many applications.  The main chemicals produced are listed below.


Sulphuric Acid (H2SO4)


A colorless, odorless, and viscous liquid, sulfuric acid is the most commonly-produced industrial chemical in the world. Its primary industrial use is to make phosphoric acid which is a main ingredient in phosphate fertilizers.  Sulfuric acid is a critical component for metal manufacturing, particularly in the production of copper and zinc as well as the cleaning of steel.  Around 270 Mt of H2SO4 is produced every year

Ethylene (C2H4)


C2H4 is a colourless, flammable organic gas with a faint "sweet & musk" odour when pure.  Over 150 Mt of ethylene is produced every year, more than any other organic compound.  Its large demand is attributed in large part to advancements in polymer production, particularly polyethylene.  It can also be used to make other industrial chemicals such as ethanol.

Ammonia (NH3)

A colorless, inorganic compound gas (boils at −33.34 °C) consisting of nitrogen and hydrogen, ammonia is often used in its gas form.  Most ammonia use is found in household, agricultural and industrial sectors, including use as an ingredient in fertilizers, cleaning products, cosmetics and refrigeration.  Over 150 Mt of ammonia was produced in 2022.

Methanol (CH3NO)

Methanol is used as a precursor to industrial chemicals, such as formaldehyde & methyl benzoate.  It is primarily used as an industrial solvent for inks, resins, adhesives, and dyes, as well as a solvent in the manufacture of cholesterol, streptomycin, vitamins, hormones, other pharmaceuticals, antifreeze for automotive radiators, ingredient of gasoline (anti freezing agent & octane booster), and alternative motor fuel.  Around 100 Mt of MeOH is produced per year.

Propylene (C3H6)


Also known as propene and/or methyl ethylene, propylene is an organic colourless gas compound.  It’s a natural byproduct of the fermentation process, making it an important chemical compound for the advancement of the green chemistry sector.  Also produced from fossil fuels, propene is hugely significant to the petrochemical industry and as a raw material for a variety of products.  Over 85 Mt of propylene are produced globally each year, primarily as fuel or for rubber/plastic production.


Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH)


Sodium hydroxide (caustic sodais a white odorless solid inorganic compound vital to many industries.  NaOH is used to produce soaps, rayon, paper, products that explode, dyes, and petroleum products.  Other tasks that may use NaOH include processing cotton fabric, metal cleaning and processing, oxide coating, electroplating, and electrolytic extraction.  It is often present in commercial drain & oven cleaners [CDC, 2022].  For biodiesel manufacture, NaOH is used as a catalyst for the transesterification of methanol & triglycerides.  Over 70 Mt of NaOH is produced worldwide.  

BTX Olefins: Benzene (C6H6), Toluene & Xylene

Olefins are unsaturated compounds with a formula of CnH2n (ex.: ethylene, propylene and butadiene) that play an important role in a lot of chemical and polymer products.  In industrial scale, there are several techniques from crude oil, natural gas, coal & methanol for the olefins production.


Benzene, Toluene, and Xylene (BTX) represent three of six basic petroleum hydrocarbons produced on a worldwide basis.  Most BTX is made by recovering aromatics from the catalytic reforming of naphtha from the petroleum refinery.  The annual demand for BTX is nearly 108 million tons at a demand growth rate of approx. 5%.


Benzene is a colorless or light yellow liquid at room temperature (but evaporates very quickly).  Some industries use it to make other chemicals that are used to make plastics, resins, and nylon and synthetic fibers.  Benzene is also used to make some types of lubricants, rubbers, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides.  More than half of the entire benzene production is processed into ethylbenzene, a precursor to styrene, which is used to make polymers and plastics like polystyrene.  Around 60 Mt of C6H6 is produced per year.

Fig 2 top chem ind firms
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