Why Ethylene is so Important to the Chemical Industry

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Ethylene, also known as ethane, is a colorless, flammable gas.  Ethylene is widely used in the chemical industry.  Ethylene is a necessary ingredient or component in the manufacture of a very wide array of chemicals and products.

Ethylene is a hydrocarbon, which simply means that it is made up of the gaseous elements carbon (“C”) and hydrogen (“H”).  The chemical formula of ethylene is C2H4, or CH2 = CH2.  Ethylene is the simplest organic hydrocarbon with a carbon-carbon double bond (Griffin, p. 31).
Ethylene occurs naturally in petroleum and natural gas.  Ethylene is usually obtained by “cracking” petroleum.  Cracking is the process of breaking down large petroleum molecules into smaller compounds (Heitmann, p. 12).  Ethylene is also produced in small quantities by fruit during the ripening process.  

Ethylene has several practical applications for people.  For example, it can be been used as an anesthetic agent in medicine.  In commercial agriculture, ethylene is used to artificially ripen and color fruit (Arshad & Frankenberger, p. 291; Arteca, p. 73-80; Carlos et. al., p. 79-80; Vendrell, p. 465).

One of the most important commercial applications of ethylene, however, is in the chemicals industry.  Ethylene is used in the manufacture of various chemicals including polymers.  

Much of the ethylene in the world is used as a building block for other chemical compounds.  This compounds, in turn, are used in the manufacture of an array of chemicals and products.

Substances and compounds made from ethylene include polyethylene, ethylene oxide, ethyl alcohol, acetaldehyde, ethylene dichloride (1,2-dichloroethane), and ethylbenzene.

Polyethylene is produced by the catalytic polymerization of ethylene.  The name polyethylene may be familiar to those outside of the chemical industry.  This is because polyethylene is widely used to make a variety of plastic products, plastic bags and packaging in particular.

Ethylene oxide is used as a building block in other chemicals such as ethylene glycol and ethanolamines.  Ethylene oxide itself is used to sterilize medical equipment and in a military explosives.  Ethyl glycol is used as antifreeze in automobile engines.  Ethanolamines are used in the production of various products including soaps, detergents, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and polishes (Stellman; see *1 in notes).

Ethyl alcohol or ethanol can be produced in a variety of ways.  Most ethyl alcohol for industrial usage, however, is manufactured through the hydration of ethylene.

1,2-Dichloroethane, also known as ethylene dichloride, is a precursor to polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a common type of plastic.  PVC is used in clothing, hoses, tubing, flooring and in inflatable products.  1,2-Dichloroethane is produced by the chlorination of ethylene (Stellman).

There are many other chemical compounds and manufacturing processes that involve ethylene.  Ethylene plays a role in the manufacture of a wide variety of chemicals and products.  As a result, the compound is of vital importance to the chemical industry.  Without ethylene many chemicals, products and manufacturing processes would not exist.




Muhammad Arshad, William T. Frankenberger.  Ethylene: agricultural sources and applications.  New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2002.

Richard N. Arteca.  Plant growth substances: principles and applications.  New York: Chapman & Hall, 1996.

José Carlos Diz, Avelino Franco, Douglas R. Bacon, Joseph Rupreht and Julian Alvarez (editors).  The history of anesthesia: proceedings of the Fifth International Symposium ...  Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier Science B.V., 2002.

Encarta World English Dictionary.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

“Ethylene”.  Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia.  New York: Funk & Wagnalls, Inc., 1979., p. 196-b.

Rodger W. Griffin, Jr.  Modern Organic Chemistry.  Toronto: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1969.

John A. Heitmann.  Scaling Up: Science, Engineering, and the American Chemical Industry.  Philadelphia: Chemical Heritage Foundation, 2005.

“Hydrocarbons, aliphatic unsaturated” in Jeanne Mager Stellman (editor).  Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety: Guides, indexes, directory.  Danvers, Massachusetts: International Labour Organization, 1998.

Miguel Vendrell, Harry Klee, Jean Claude Pech, Felix Romojaro (editors).  Biology and biotechnology of the plant hormone ethylene III.  Burke, Virgina: IOS Press, 2003.

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