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Strictly, any of a large class of chemicals (as distinct from fuels) derived from petroleum and natural gas. The category has been broadened to include a much larger range of organic compounds and a few inorganic compounds (including carbon black, sulfur, and ammonia). Some materials cannot be classifed unequivocally because they have alternative sources (benzene from coal, ethanol from fermentation). Like crude oil and natural gas, most petrochemicals consist mainly of carbon and hydrogen and are called hydrocarbons. Petrochemicals used as raw materials (feedstocks) include ethylene, propylene, butadiene, benzene, toluene, xylene, and naphthalene. Among the myriad petrochemical products are plastics (e.g., polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene), soaps and detergents, solvents, drugs, fertilizers, pesticides, explosives, synthetic fibres and rubberss, paints, epoxies, flooring and insulating materials, luggage, and recording disks and tapes.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on petrochemical, visit Britannica.com.