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Petrochemicals (also known as petroleum distillates) 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, palm fruit or sugar cane.

Global ethylene and propylene production are about 115 million tonnes and 70 million tonnes per annum, respectively. Aromatics production is approximately 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.

Like commodity chemicals, petrochemicals are made on a very large scale. Petrochemical manufacturing units differ from commodity chemical plants in that they often produce a number of related products. Compare this with specialty chemical and fine chemical manufacture where products are made in discrete batch processes.

The large scale petrochemical manufacturing locations have clusters of manufacturing units that share utilities and large scale infrastructure such as power stations, storage tanks, port facilities, road and rail terminals. In the United Kingdom for example, there are 4 main locations for such manufacturing: near the River Mersey in Northwest England, on the Humber on the East coast of Yorkshire, in Grangemouth near the Firth of Forth in Scotland and in Teesside as part of the Northeast of England Process Industry Cluster (NEPIC). To demonstrate the clustering and integration, some 50% of the United Kingdom's petrochemical and commodity chemicals are produced by the NEPIC industry cluster companies in Teesside.

In 1835, Henri Victor Regnault, a French chemist left vinyl chloride in the sun and found white solid at the bottom of the flask which was polyvinyl chloride. In 1839 Eduard Simon, discovered polystyrene by accident by distilling storax. In 1856, William Henry Perkin discovered the first synthetic dye, Mauveine. In 1888, Friedrich Reinitzer, an Austrian plant scientist observed cholesteryl benzoate had two different melting points. In 1909, Leo Hendrik Baekeland invented bakelite made from phenol and formaldehyde. In 1928 synthetic fuels invented using Fischer-Tropsch process. In 1929, Walter Bock invented synthetic rubber Buna-S which is made up of styrene and butadiene and used to make car tires. In 1933, Otto Rohm polymerized the first acrylic glass methyl methacrylate. In 1935, Michael Perrin invented polyethylene. After World War II, polypropylene was discovered in the early 1950s. In 1937, Wallace Hume Carothers invented nylon. In 1946, he invented Polyester. polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles are made from ethylene and paraxylene. In 1938, Otto Bayer invented polyurethane. In 1941, Roy Plunkett invented Teflon. In 1949, Fritz Stastny turned polystyrene into foam. In 1965, Stephanie Kwolek invented Kevlar.