Chemistry

An Introduction to the Chemical Industry



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The chemical industry is the industrial sector which converts raw materials into finished chemical products like plastics, fertilizers and cosmetics. Globally, the chemical industry has a total revenue in excess of $3 trillion per year.

Taken as a whole, the chemical industry is currently an extremely large and strategically vital economic sector. In the United States, according to the American Chemistry Council, chemical companies employ about 800,000 people, with an average salary of nearly $85,000. The numbers are high in other developed countries. In the United Kingdom, the Chemical Industries Association states that its member companies employ almost 200,000 people and generate £57 billion per year. Germany, which has been an industry heavyweight for many decades, has half a million people working in the sector.

Historically, the chemical industry has been dominated by large corporate interests based in developed countries. These firms, such as Dow Chemical, DuPont and BASF, invest heavily in research and development - according to professor Richard Zare of Stanford University, 10 percent of all industrial scientists work in the chemical industry. As a result, the leading firms hold the patents to a wide variety of cutting-edge organic chemicals and production processes. Although such companies remained headquartered disproportionately in America, Europe and Japan, natural resource extraction and chemical production are now international activities, with plants of various kinds stationed all over the globe.

The chemical industry is actually an extremely broad component of the economy. Consequently, it is helpful to subdivide the industry into a number of major segments based upon the types of chemicals produced. One of the most important sectors is the production of polymers and plastics, which accounts for the majority of the output of the industry. Second, the commodity sector produces a large number of chemicals mainly for use in other industries, like fertilizer. The two other major sectors are the pharmaceutical sector, which develops chemicals as medications to treat various illnesses, and the consumer chemical sector, which produces cleaners, detergents and cosmetics.

Although it is one of the leading components of the global economy, the chemical industry has become a lightning rod for popular criticism in recent years. Some critics argue that intellectual property rules, like patent laws, have allowed a small number of firms to exercise an unfair level of control and exact extraordinarily high profits. There have long been claims that chemical plants are built in jurisdictions with lax environmental and labour regulations, leading to disasters like the Bhopal leak of 1984. In that incident, a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, accidentally released a cloud of extremely toxic methyl isocyanate gas which killed thousands of nearby residents. In the United States and other countries, there have also been concerns that chemical plants might be targeted by terrorists because of the potential for great destruction and chemical contamination.

Despite these concerns, the economy today is in many respects underpinned by the activities of the chemical industry. Indeed, professor Zare worries that one of the most disturbing signs of the chemical industry today is that many companies are "operating in a harvesting mode," enjoying profits from past innovations, rather than moving forward with the sort of advanced research and development which led to past innovations, like the invention of plastic and the development of radical new drug therapies for life-threatening illnesses.

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ARTICLE SOURCES AND CITATIONS
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  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://www.stanford.edu/group/Zarelab/zare/000327_ACS.pdf