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Chemical Industry

Two clear subsectors comprise the chemical industry: organic and inorganic chemicals. These subsectors refer to the types of raw materials used to create the chemical products. Organic chemicals, also referred to as an organic compound, a broad class of substances containing carbon and its derivatives, are derived from fossil fuels and biomass materials; inorganic chemicals are produced from combining elements and compounds. Examples of inorganic chemicals include sodium chloride (NaCl), iron oxide (FeO), and hydrochloric acid (HCl). Both types of materials are sold as ingredients for other products or to consumers for specific uses.

US chemical products can be divided into four general categories:

  1. Basic and intermediate chemicals: The major products of this segment include polymers, bulk petrochemicals and intermediates, fertilizers, inorganic chemicals and other industrial chemicals. Employing almost a third of workers in the industry, this segment is the largest of the four, providing plastics for packaging, home construction, appliances, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), piping, toys and games.
  2. Specialty chemicals: These chemicals are typically high-value-added products with many differentiations. The major products of this segment include paints and coatings, adhesive sealants, catalysts, dyes and pigments, industrial gases, resins and plastic additives.
  3. Life science chemicals: These are differentiated biological and chemical substances used to induce specific outcomes in humans, animals, plants and other life forms. The major products of this segment include agrochemicals, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology products.
  4. Science and technology chemicals: These products include advanced materials that transform current technologies. They enhance the characteristics of traditional specialty chemical products, as listed above.

US chemical companies have already started to transform themselves into science and technology companies, placing them at the forefront of the response to emerging global mega trends such as climate change, resource scarcity and population growth. In particular, this transformation has focused on:

  • The increased use of research and new technology supporting an evolution from base chemical production to specialties
  • Rationalizations and other efforts to increase their competitive advantage, both domestically and abroad
  • Innovations to address a growing number of environmental regulations that include global protocols and legislative mandates in other countries

Even these current efforts, however, will not be enough for the US chemical industry to stay ahead of strong, new competitors emerging on the horizon. Instead, US chemical companies are redefining their traditional role as chemical producers and literally reinventing themselves as the global industry’s leading science and technology companies for the 21st century.