free html hit counter Peak Oil Debunked: 30. ISN'T OIL ESSENTIAL FOR PLASTICS?

Friday, August 19, 2005


I received this question from a reader by email:

QUESTION: "Isn't the oil used largely to make plastics? I have often heard the argument, even if we could get autos/industry 100% off of middle eastern oil for heating and gasoline etc, we still would be largely dependent on mideast oil because plastics uses so much of it."

ANSWER: I am not a chemist, but I have been informed that any hydrocarbon can be used as a source of feedstock for plastic. (Note to any chemists reading: If you can improve this explanation, I would be grateful if you could post a comment or link.)

Coal tar is a versatile feedstock:
Product of the destructive distillation of bituminous coal. Coal tar can be distilled into many fractions to yield a number of useful organic products, including benzene, toluene, xylene, naphthalene, anthracene, and phenanthrene. These substances, called the coal-tar crudes, form the starting point for the synthesis of numerous products—notably dyes, drugs, explosives, flavorings, perfumes, preservatives, synthetic resins, and paints and stains. The residual pitch left from the fractional distillation is used for paving, roofing, waterproofing, and insulation.Source

Nylon was originally made from coal:
Chemically, nylon is a condensation polymer made of repeating units with amide linkages between them: hence it is frequently referred to as a polyamide. It was the first synthetic fibre to be made entirely from inorganic ingredients: coal, water and air. These are formed into two intermediate chemicals, most commonly hexamethylene diamine and adipic acid (a dicarboxylic acid), which are then mixed to polymerise.Source

Sasol, the South African coal liquefaction firm, produces plastic from syngas (which in turn is produced from natural gas and coal):
Sasol Limited, a holding company, engages in the production and marketing of chemicals and liquid fuels world wide. The company manufactures syngas from natural gas and low-grade coal, as well as converts syngas into a range of products, including synfuels, chemical feedstock, and industrial pipeline gas; and a range of surfactants; surfactant intermediates, including alcohols and alkylates; monomers; and inorganic specialty chemicals derived mostly from coal and chemical feedstocks. It also engages in the production and marketing of ethylene and propylene monomers, polypropylene, polyethylene, and polyvinyl chloride polymers, as well as a range of oxygenated solvents. In addition, Sasol markets liquid fuels, such as gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, fuel alcohol, illuminating paraffin, and fuel oils, as well as gaseous fuels, including liquified petroleum gas. Sasol Limited was established in 1950 and is headquartered in Rosebank, South Africa.Source*

For a reading on the amount of oil used as feedstock in the U.S., we can turn to this information from the EIA:
Petrochemical Feedstocks
Petroleum feedstocks have been used in the commercial production of petrochemicals since the 1920's. Petrochemical feedstocks are converted to basic chemical building blocks and intermediates used to produce plastics, synthetic rubber, synthetic fibers, drugs, and detergents. Naphtha, one of the basic feedstocks, is a liquid obtained from the refining of crude oil.

Petrochemical feedstocks also include products recovered from natural gas, and refinery gases (ethane, propane, and butane). Still other feedstocks include ethylene, propylene, normal- and iso-butylenes, butadiene, and aromatics such as benzene, toluene, and xylene. These feedstocks are produced by processing products such as ethane (separated from natural gas), distillates, naphthas, and heavier oils.

Industry data show that the chemical industry uses nearly 1.5 million barrels per day of natural gas liquids and liquefied refinery gases as petrochemical feedstocks and plant fuel. Demand for textiles, explosives, elastomers, plastics, drugs, and synthetic rubber during World War II increased the petrochemical use of refinery gases. Gas byproducts from the production of gasoline are an important source of many feedstocks.Source

Referring to #27 (Where Does All the Oil Go?) below, we see that about 1.6mbd of LPG (Liquid Petroleum Gas) and 1.4 mbd of other petroleum (3mbd total) is used as feedstock to produce non-fuel products in the petroleum and chemical industries. This means that feedstock accounts for about 15% of total oil consumption. Also, total oil production for the U.S. in 2003 was 5.7mbd, so (to answer your question KnightWatchman): the U.S. could meet its own plastic needs, even without mideast oil.

*) Thanks to DriveElectric for this link.


At Thursday, December 22, 2005 at 5:03:00 AM PST, Blogger Roland said...

And organic plastics ... these are already used in mobile phones, and ultimately they'll provide all of our plastic needs.

At Wednesday, April 23, 2008 at 7:09:00 AM PDT, Blogger xcellent said...

Nice and useful post about Some Coal as Chemical Feedstock for Oil and Polymers?.

Have also given a link to it from my related post

Coal as Chemical Feedstock for Oil and Polymers?.


At Sunday, December 6, 2009 at 12:56:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heard about peak coal and peak natural gas ? Peak oil will lead to an exponential use of coal and natural gas.

Peak natural gas: 2020-2030
Peak coal: 2020-2050 (uncertain data)

(numbers are from wikipedia, which cites different sources)

Let´s hope "biomass based" plastics industry will evolve..


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