Introduction to the Chemical Industry

Article by Taaibah Hossain toothpaste on a toothbrush

Chemical manufacture is very important to modern day life. Manufactured chemicals will be present in almost every product that you will use today: from your toothpaste to your nylon jacket, your ballpoint pen to your mobile phone; manufactured chemicals have truly infiltrated our lives. This article is all about the Chemical Industry: a term used to describe the companies who manufacture and process the chemicals that constitute the products that we use. photo of a young female scientist

What is the Chemical Industry?

Companies within the Chemical Industry convert raw materials such as oil, metals and minerals into products. Chemicals have been used and processed throughout history but large scale manufacture of chemicals only began in earnest during the industrial revolution. Many professionals are employed by the Chemical Industry including, but not limited to, chemical engineers, chemists and lab technicians.


What does the Chemical Industry make?

There are three main type of chemical that can be manufactured in industry: fine, bulk and speciality chemicals. Bulk chemicals are those which are manufactured on a very large scale. Commodity chemicals are a type of bulk chemical that are manufactured in order to meet the needs of global markets. The bulk chemicals industry manufacture many chemicals and products including polymers, petrochemicals and fertilizers. Bulk chemical plants have very big vessels in which chemicals are made and processed. image of shipping containersFine chemicals are complex pure chemicals that are produced in small quantities and are sold for high prices. They are made to meet a particular specification and are then used in other chemical processes to make products. Fine chemicals are often made via organic synthesis. An organic synthesis is a series of chemical reactions that are carried out in a lab, using carbon based chemicals to make a molecule or compound. Fine chemicals can also be made through bio-technical processing. This involves the use of living organisms to make chemicals. Fine chemicals are often used as a starting material for making other chemicals. Speciality chemicals are a type of chemical that are made on relatively small scales in batch processes. Speciality chemicals are used to make products for a variety of sectors. Types of speciality chemicals include, adhesives, cosmetic additives, flavours, fragrances, elastomers and lubricants. Speciality chemicals are a key export of the UK which contains many speciality chemicals companies, especially in the Northeast of England.  

Challenges faced by the hemicals industry

an industrial plantThe Chemical Industry is faced with many challenges. Some of these challenges arise due to the hazardous nature of the chemicals that are being used. Hazardous chemicals must be handled carefully and disposed of in a particular way to ensure that they do not cause damage to the environment or to people. Another challenge faced by the chemicals industry, is the risks associated with manufacturing chemicals. Conditions within reactor vessels must be constantly monitored and controlled by plant operatives and chemical engineers. Accidents and disasters can happen which is why chemical manufacture is heavily monitored and regulated by bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive, in the UK. The proper disposal of chemical waste is another aspect of chemical manufacturing which must be monitored to ensure that harmful waste is not released into the environment.


Laboratory and Plant Safety

Two workers in hard hatsEnsuring the safety of professionals making chemicals is an important consideration for the Chemical Industry. Alkylation is an important chemical reaction that is used to transfer an alkyl group from one molecule to another. The conversion of low molecular weight compounds such as isobutane into high octane gasoline compound is an example of alkylation. The process is usually carried out in the presence of acid catalysts such as hydrogen fluoride (HF). HF is corrosive and toxic and therefore poses a huge risk to scientists handling the compound in laboratories and to plant operatives who help to carry out the reaction on a large scale. In an attempt to mitigate the risk of using HF during alkylation scientists have carried research out seeking to find a safer alternative catalyst for the reaction. Scientists have found solid catalysts to be an effective replacement to the conventional HF catalyst. Using solid catalysts during alkylation is advantageous because the risks associated with using HF such as spilling acid are no longer present. Thus, the reaction can be carried out more safely.

Environmental issues related to chemical manufacture

An example of a terrible environmental disaster related to the chemicals industry was the Hungary Red Mud Disaster of October 2010. During the incident a damn burst due to heavy rains. This caused the release of a toxic mudflow which travelled downstream over fields and towards towns. The mudflow was 2m high and covered an area of 40km2. The water in the dam had become highly toxic and alkaline due to the release of effluent from a nearby Bauxite factory by the name of Ajka Aluminium Works. The factory was poorly regulated and should not have been releasing waste material into the reservoir. The impact of the disaster was huge, quite literally. 1 million cubic metres of waste flowed from the dam and affected 7 towns. Unfortunately, around 7000 people were impacted by the incident: 9 people died and 120 were injured.  Fish and wildlife were also killed. Another result of the mudflow was the contamination of topsoil in nearby agricultural areas. firefighters spraying water onto a large fireThe Hungary Red Mud Disaster teaches us the importance of proper regulation of companies who manufacture, process and use chemicals. Without clear regulations regarding the disposal of chemical waste people are put at unnecessary risk. Chemical disasters still occur today. Notable recent disasters include the Kamituga gold mine landslides in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the 2020 Ahmedabad blast, which killed twelve people. A trend in some of the more recent chemical disasters is that they have all occurred in developing nations. This could be due to the fact that health and safety regulation is not in place or is not as strict as it is in more developed nations.


To conclude, the role of the Chemical Industry is to manufacture chemicals for various uses. There are three main types of chemicals that can be manufactured: bulk, fine and speciality. Different types of chemicals are used for varying purposes. Carrying out certain chemical reactions can be unsafe due to the materials that are used, as in the reaction of alkylation, but research can be carried out to find alternative chemicals allowing professionals to be at a lower risk when carrying out their jobs. Chemical manufacture must be regulated and monitored as poor regulation can cause major environmental catastrophes such as the Hungary Red Mud Disaster.  

Image credits: Photo Mix from Pixabay ThisIsEngineering, Polina Tankilevich, Loic Manegarium, Frans van Heerden and Anamul Rezwan from Pexels

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