Petrochemistry is a science that can readily be applied to fundamental human needs, such as health, hygiene, housing and food. To many, this comes as a surprise. The word “chemistry” itself conjures up a world of mystery – what it really does is very much taken for granted. Yet it is a fascinating science and an inventive business sector, constantly adapting to new environments and meeting new challenges.
Chemicals derived from petroleum or natural gas – petrochemicals – are an essential part of the chemical industry today. Petrochemistry is a fairly young industry; it only started to grow in the 1940s, more than 80 years after the drilling of the first commercial oil well in 1859. During World War II, the demand for synthetic materials to replace costly and sometimes less efficient products caused the petrochemical industry to develop into a major player in today’s economy and society.
Before then, it used to be a tentative, experimental sector, starting with basic materials: synthetic rubbers in the 1900s, Bakelite, the first petrochemical-derived plastic in 1907, the first petrochemical solvents in the 1920s, polystyrene in the 1930s… And it then moved to an incredible variety of areas – from household goods (kitchen appliances, textile, furniture) to medicine (heart pacemakers, transfusion bags), from leisure (running shoes, computers…) to highly specialised fields like archaeology or crime detection