The Top 10 Industrial Chemicals

By John T. Moore, Chris Hren, Peter J. Mikulecky

In the final analysis, chemistry is about chemicals. In school, you may carry out a reaction with a few grams of a chemical; in industry, tons of the same chemical may be used in the same reaction. And in industry, a lot of money is made from actually very few chemicals. Maybe you’ve wondered about industrial chemistry, including what goes on in that field and which chemicals are used on a large scale. Here are the ten most commonly produced chemicals. The amounts change from year to year, but all the chemicals listed are produced in excess of 100 million metric tons. Here you can see how much chemistry impacts your daily life.

Sulfuric Acid (H2SO4)

No matter what the year, sulfuric acid heads the list as the number-one produced chemical worldwide. The major use of sulfuric acid is in the production of fertilizers — ammonium sulfate and superphosphate. However, sulfuric acid is also used in other products, including the following:

  • Detergents

  • Lead-acid automobile batteries

  • Other chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, dye, explosives, pigments, and drugs

Sulfuric acid is also used as a reactant during the manufacture or processing of certain goods. Here are some examples of its function:

  • To remove impurities during petroleum refining

  • To remove metallic oxides before electroplating and galvanizing metal

  • To remove water during certain chemical reactions

  • To act as a reactant in the manufacture of rayon and nitroglycerine

Nitrogen (N2)

Nitrogen is largely an inert gas because it’s commonly used as a blanketing gas, which means it protects oxygen-sensitive materials from contact with the air. Following are some of the many industrial uses of liquid nitrogen:

  • To quickly freeze substances for processing; for example, it’s commonly used to freeze old tires in order to make them easier to shred for recycling purposes

  • To manufacture steel and other metals

  • To cool concrete, improving the properties of the building material

  • To freeze soggy ground, making construction easier

  • To cool chemical reactors, allowing chemical engineers to more effectively control side reactions

The following industries also use nitrogen and liquid nitrogen:

  • Food: The food industry uses the quick-cooling aspect to minimize cell damage from ice crystals that commonly form during the normal freezing process. Another use is in food service: Liquid nitrogen is used in refrigerated trucks to minimize the contact of the food with air.

  • Healthcare: The healthcare industry uses liquid nitrogen to freeze blood and tissue samples as well as in cryosurgery to destroy tissue, such as warts.

And at least one college chemistry club uses liquid nitrogen to make ice cream. No churning here; it’s ready in less than a minute!

Ethylene (C2H4)

Ethylene is one of the major feed stocks for the chemical industry, especially the plastics industry. You may be surprised to see how versatile this chemical is. It’s used in these ways:

  • To produce ethylene glycol (antifreeze), styrene (used to make polystyrene for use as packing and insulation), and polyethylene, one of the most widely used plastics; in fact, about half of the ethylene produced is used to make the various types of polyethylene

  • To make ethanol for industrial uses; by law, ethanol for human consumption must be produced by fermentation

  • To produce polyester (like for the polyester leisure suits of the 1970s)

  • To produce synthetic rubber

Oxygen (O2)

Some of oxygen’s main roles are in the following combustion processes:

  • Commercially produced oxygen is used in oxyacetylene and oxyhydrogen welding torches.

  • Oxygen is used in the steelmaking industry to help burn off impurities in the molten ore. About a ton of oxygen is required per ton of steel produced!

  • Liquid oxygen (LOX) is used as an oxidizing agent in missiles and rockets. The oxygen tank that is used to launch the space shuttle holds about 550,000 liters of liquid oxygen.

Oxygen is also used in chemical industries to break down hydrocarbons (compounds of just carbon and hydrogen) into smaller hydrocarbon products such as ethylene, propylene, and acetylene, which are in turn used to produce plastics, paints, and other products.

Propylene (C3H6)

Propylene’s major use is as an intermediate in the production of other chemical compounds, like the following:

  • In the production of polyethylene needed to produce synthetic fibers for indoor/outdoor carpets

  • In the production of propylene glycols for auto brake fluid, detergents, and paints

  • In the production of polyurethane for rigid foam insulation

  • In the production of various types of ABS plastics used in telephones and auto trim parts

Chlorine (Cl2)

Chlorine has many uses, including the following:

  • To produce consumer and industrial products such as plastics, pharmaceuticals, dyes, household cleaners (including bleach and other disinfecting agents), insecticides, and textiles

  • To treat water in multiple ways:

    • To largely eliminate waterborne pathogens during water purification in water treatment plants in the United States

    • To kill bacteria in swimming pools; sodium hypochlorite produced from chlorine is used

  • To act as a major reactant in the production of bulletproof vests, computer chips, and auto parts

Ethylene Dichloride (C2H2Cl2)

The major use of ethylene dichloride is in the production of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Those white plastic pipes used to carry water underground and throughout your home are PVC, which is a mainstay of the construction industry.

Ethylene dichloride is also used in the production of polystyrene, another useful synthetic polymer. Ethylene dichloride is used in the production of

  • Certain dry cleaning fluids

  • Flooring

  • Shower curtains

  • Synthetic rubber

Phosphoric Acid (H3PO4)

About three-quarters of the phosphoric acid produced worldwide is used in the production of synthetic phosphate fertilizers. Here are some other uses for phosphoric acid:

  • Food additive: In the food industry, phosphoric acid is added as a food pH adjuster (in colas, for example), as a clarifying agent, and as a preservative.

  • Rust remover: Phosphoric acid acts as a rust converter, converting the ferric oxide (Fe2O3) to ferric phosphate (FePO4), which can then be easily scrubbed off. Phosphoric acid for this purpose is commonly sold as a gel called naval jelly.

Ammonia (NH3)

Well over half of the ammonia produced worldwide is used in agriculture:

  • It’s used to produce liquid fertilizers that contain ammonia, ammonium nitrate, and urea. It’s also used in the production of ammonium nitrate fertilizer.

  • It’s used in the production of cotton defoliants, stripping leaves to make the cotton easier to pick.

  • It’s used to make antifungal agents for certain fruits.

Ammonia is also used in the production of other chemicals and products, including

  • Nitric acid

  • Certain dyes

  • Sulfa drugs

  • Cosmetics

  • Vitamins

  • Certain synthetic textiles, such as rayon and nylon

  • Household cleaners, such as glass cleaners

Additionally, ammonia is used by several industries:

  • As a complexing agent in the mining and metal manufacturing industries

  • As a refrigerant in industrial refrigeration

  • As a curing and protective agent in the leather industry

Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH)

When a strong base is required in industry, sodium hydroxide is the one. It’s put to many uses in a variety of industries. Here are some of its uses:

  • In the petroleum industry, sodium hydroxide is used to increase the pH of drilling mud, making it more viscous.

  • Some countries use it to help remove sulfur impurities from low-grade crude oil.

  • The papermaking industry uses it in the digestion and bleaching of wood fibers.

  • Sodium hydroxide is used for the decomposition of roadkill and, if you can believe CSI, to get rid of human remains.

  • It’s used in soap making.

  • It’s used in the production of biodiesel.

  • It’s used as an industrial cleaning agent, especially in the degreasing of equipment. In the home, sodium hydroxide is used as an oven and drain cleaner.

  • The food industry uses it in the making of hominy, Chinese noodles, and German pretzels.