chemical industry

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chemical industry

chemical industry, the business of using chemical reactions to turn raw materials, such as coal, oil, and salt, into a variety of products. During the 19th and 20th cent. technological advances in the chemical industry dramatically altered the world's economy. Chemical processes have created pesticides and fertilizers for farmers, pharmaceuticals for the health care industry, synthetic dies and fibers for the textile industry, soaps and beauty aids for the cosmetics industry, synthetic sweeteners and flavors for the food industry, plastics for the packaging industry, chemicals and celluloid for the motion picture industry, and artificial rubber for the auto industry.


Chemical industries can be traced back to Middle Eastern artisans, who refined alkali and limestone for the production of glass as early as 7,000 B.C., to the Phoenicians who produced soap in the 6th cent. B.C., and to the Chinese who developed black powder, a primitive explosive around the 10th cent. A.D. In the Middle Ages, alchemists produced small amounts of chemicals and by 1635 the Pilgrims in Massachusetts were producing saltpeter for gunpowder and chemicals for tanning. But, large-scale chemical industries first developed in 19th cent. In 1823, British entrepreneur James Muspratt started mass producing soda ash (needed for soap and glass) using a process developed by Nicolas Leblanc in 1790. Advances in organic chemistry in the last half of the 19th cent. allowed companies to produce synthetic dyes from coal tar for the textile industry as early as the 1850s.

In the 1890s, German companies began mass producing sulfuric acid and, at about the same time, chemical companies began using the electrolytic method, which required large amounts of electricity and salt, to create caustic soda and chlorine. Synthetic fibers changed the textile industry when rayon (made from wood fibers) was introduced in 1914; the introduction of synthetic fertilizers by the American Cyanamid Company in 1909 led to a green revolution in agriculture that dramatically improved crop yields. Advances in the manufacture of plastics led to the invention of celluloid in 1869 and the creation of such products as nylon by Du Pont in 1928. Research in organic chemistry in the 1910s allowed companies in the 1920s and 30s to begin producing chemicals for oil. Today, petrochemicals made from oil are the industry's largest sector. Synthetic rubber came into existence during World War II, when the war cut off supplies of rubber from Asia.

Since the 1950s growing concern about toxic waste produced by chemical industries has led to increased government regulation and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (1972). The leakage of toxic chemicals at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India (1984), was the worst industrial disaster in history and heightened public concern about lax environmental regulations for chemical companies in developing countries. Beginning in the 1980s, U.S. corporations faced expanding competition from foreign producers, including some Third World oil producers who have set up their own oil refining and petrochemical industries. In 1997 the U.S. chemical industry produced about $389 billion worth of products and employed 1,032,000 workers. It exported about $71 billion worth of chemicals.


See K. Lanz, Around the World with Chemistry (1980); G. Taylor, Du Pont and the International Chemical Industry (1984); W. Morehouse, The Bhopal Tragedy (1986); F. Aftalion, A History of the International Chemical Industry (1991); A. Heaton, ed., The Chemical Industry (2d ed., 1994).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Chemical Industry


one of the branches of heavy industry, the material and technical basis for the chemicalization of the national economy. It manufactures a variety of chemical products: mineral raw materials, products of basic chemistry (ammonia, inorganic acids, alkalis, mineral fertilizers, soda, chlorine and chlorine products, liquefied gases), synthetic resins and plastics, chemical fibers and yarns, materials and articles made from plastics and fiberglass reinforced plastics, paints and varnishes, synthetic dyes, chemical reagents, photochemical products, and household chemical products.

The emergence of the chemical industry as an independent branch is associated with the industrial revolution. The first sulfuric acid plants were built in Great Britain in 1740 (Richmond), France in 1766 (Rouen), Russia in 1805 (Moscow Province), and Germany in 1810 (near Leipzig). The development of the textile and glass industries prompted the initiation of soda production. The first soda plants were built in France in 1793 (near Paris), Great Britain in 1823 (Liverpool), Germany in 1843 (Schönebeck), and Russia in 1864 (Barnaul). In the mid-19th century, artificial fertilizer plants appeared in Britain (1842), Germany (1867), and Russia (1892).

Extensive ties with many countries of the world for commerce in raw materials and the early formation of an advanced industry gave Great Britain the leading position in chemical production during the first three quarters of the 19th century. By the end of the century, industry leadership had shifted to Germany. The rapid process of concentration in the chemical industry, the high level of scientific and technological development, the strengthening of the monopoly on patents, and commercial politics led to Germany’s conquest of the world market. Until World War I it retained a monopoly on the production of organic dyes and intermediates. The chemical industry in the USA began developing appreciably later than in the European countries, but as early as 1913 the USA led the world in volume of chemical production as a result of the country’s extremely rich mineral resources, well-developed transportation systems, and large domestic market, as well as its exploitation of the experience of other countries.

The chemical industry of prerevolutionary Russia was backward. With weak technology and an undeveloped raw materials base, it was greatly dependent on foreign capital. In 1913 there were 349 primarily small-scale cottage enterprises employing 43,000 workers. Production figures were as follows (in thousand tons): mineral fertilizers (calculated on the basis of 100 percent nutrient content), 17; sulfuric acid, 145; soda ash, 152; caustic soda, 51; and aniline dyes, 9. Russia ranked eighth in the world in volume of chemical output. The first plant for the production of synthetic resins and plastics, Karbolit (Orekhovo-Zuevo), was built in 1915. In 1916 the first plant for the production of nitric acid from ammonia went into partial operation. During World War I the chemical industry developed at a more rapid rate to meet the increased demand from the army, particularly for explosives.

After the October Revolution of 1917, the Soviet state treated development of the chemical industry as one of its most important tasks. Exceptional growth was mandated for the chemical industry in the GOELRO plan. In 1932 the volume of production of the chemical industry was 4.7 times greater than the 1913 level; during the same period the gross output of all industry grew by a factor of 2.7. Major facilities were built for producing artificial ammonia and nitrogen fertilizers (Chernaia Rechka, 1927; Berezniki, 1932; Novomoskovsk, 1933, Gorlovka, 1933), phosphate fertilizers (the Voskresensk [1931] and Nevskii [1931] plants), and chemical fibers and yarns (Mogilev, 1930; Klin, 1931; Leningrad, 1930). In order to increase the production of synthetic resins and plastics, the Okhta Chemical Combine was expanded in 1931, as was the Karbolit plant in Kemerovo in 1932. In 1931 the Apatit Chemical Mineral Combine for processing ore from the Khibiny apatite deposits was put into operation; this made it possible to terminate imports of phosphate raw materials and to begin Soviet export to many countries. The Solikamsk Potash Combine was constructed to process ores from the Upper Kama deposits of potassium salts, which were discovered in 1925. By 1940 the output of chemical and petrochemical products had increased by a factor of 18 over the 1913 levels, and the chemical industry of the USSR was ranked fifth in the world.

The Soviet chemical industry was severely damaged during the Great Patriotic War of 1941–45. During 1941 the industry lost 77 percent of the production capacity for sulfuric acid, 50 percent for ammonia, and 83 percent for soda ash. The total volume of chemical production decreased. Restoration of plant operations was of paramount importance to the war effort. In order to fill the needs of the front, some factories were relocated in the eastern part of the country, where new production capacity was created. An increase in chemical and petrochemical output was achieved in 1943, and in 1949 it exceeded the output of 1940 by a factor of 1.5. Between 1951 and 1960, production increased primarily as a result of the reconstruction and expansion of existing enterprises. Production of new types of synthetic resins and plastics and of stable dyes was instituted. In 1960 construction began on the Kursk, Engels, and Riazan’ plants for the manufacture of chemical fibers.

Of great significance to the development of the chemical industry was the decree of the Plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU of May 6–7, 1958, On Accelerating the Development of the Chemical Industry and Particularly the Production of Synthetic Materials and Articles Made From Them to Satisfy Consumer Demand and the Needs of the National Economy. Over the period 1961–70, capital investment in the chemical and petrochemical industries totaled 19.7 billion rubles. During this period new enterprises put into operation included the Shchekino (1961), Nevinnomyssk (1962), Kédainiai (1962), Cherkassy (1965), Navoi (1965), and Polotsk (1968) chemical combines; the Fergana (1962), Grodno (1963), Ionava (1964), and Dorogobuzh (1965) nitrogen fertilizer plants; the Chardzhou (1960), Sumgait (1961), Uvarovo (1966), and Dzhambul (1968) superphosphate plants; and the Cherkassy (1961), Chernigov (1962), Kirovakan (1962), Balakovo (1963), Daugavpils (1963), Svetlogorsk (1964), Rustavi (1964), and Volzhskii (1966) chemical fiber plants.

New sources of mineral raw materials were used. A number of enterprises were put into operation to make use of resource bases supplying raw materials: the First (1963), Second (1965), and Third (1969) Soligorsk potash combines (for the Starobin Potassium-Salt Basin, Minsk Oblast); the Stebnik Potash Combine (1966, for the Stebnik deposit, L’vov Oblast); the Kingisepp Mine and Fosforit Combine (1966, for the Kingisepp phosphorite deposit, Leningrad Oblast); and the Iavorov Mining and Chemical Combine (1970, for a major sulfur deposit in the Carpathians, L’vov Oblast). The production of chemical equipment also expanded, and expenditures for scientific research increased by a factor of 3.3, which brought about significant growth in the output of the chemical industry (see Table 1).

During the period 1971–75 the chemical and petrochemical industries developed at ever increasing rates. Their contribution to the nation’s industrial production rose from 6.0 percent in 1970 to 6.9 percent in 1975. In 1973, as a result of major increases in production capacity, the USSR rose to first place in the world in the production of mineral fertilizers.

The chemical industry is characterized by a high relative consumption of materials and energy. The industry draws on vast resources of raw materials, energy, and fuels; they include the unique deposits of apatites on the Kola Peninsula; large reserves of phosphorites in southern Kazakhstan (Karatau), Leningrad Oblast, and other regions; reserves of potassium salts in the Urals, Byelorussia, and the Ukraine; and a number of deposits of sodium chloride, the raw material for the chlorine and soda industries. Also widely used are petrochemical feedstocks—products of the processing of oil and natural gas.

The chemical industry is sited in all major economic regions of

Table 1. Soviet manufacture of the most important chemical products
Mineral fertilizers (on the basis of 100% nutrient content, million tons) ...............
Chemical agents for plant protection (on the basis of 100% active ingredients, thousand tons) ...............5.132.3164.0264.0
Sulfuric acid (monohydrate, million tons) ...............
Soda ash (100%, thousand tons) ...............206.0509.0711.01,793.03,485.04,842.0
Caustic soda (100%, thousand tons) ...............54.0175.0299.0704.01,783.02,604.0
Synthetic resins and plastics (thousand tons) ...............0.310.967.1312.01,673.03,061.0
Chemical fibers and yarns (thousand tons) ...............,020.0
Synthetic dyes (thousand tons) ...............10.334.347.083.994.889.3
Table 2. Manufacture of the most important chemical products in selected socialist countries in 1976 (in thousands of tons)
CountryMineral fertilizers1Sulfuric acid (monohydrate)Soda ash (100%)Caustic soda (100%)Plastics and synthetic resinsChemical fibers
1On the basis of 100% nutrient content
Bulgaria ...............6138521,0258715268
Czschoslovakia ...............1,1161,240130292581147
German Democratic Republic ...............4,390966882441675291
Hungary ...............6806398314121
Poland ...............2,5933,289911389443238
Rumania ...............1,8691,555814673465179

the country. It includes a considerable number of large-scale production associations based on the integrated processing of raw materials or the coupling of successive stages in the processing of products, such as the Apatit, Karatau, Uralkalii, and Beloruskalii mining and chemical production associations and the Nevinnomyssk, Novomoskovsk, and Voskresensk production associations for mineral fertilizers.

Integrated automation and mechanization and the introduction of large-capacity production units are the key elements in the creation of large-scale specialized enterprises for the production of fertilizers and chemical fibers and yarns, as well as the processing of synthetic resins and plastics. The industry has organized the manufacture of organic synthesis products, polymer materials, and plastics, and large-scale units for producing chemical fibers and yarns have been constructed. During the period 1971–75, many advanced production processes were developed, refined, and adopted, and the unit capacity of the equipment used to manufacture some of the most important products increased by factors of from 2 to 5. Research and development expanded by nearly 50 percent, and productivity in these areas was consequently increased. The level of production mechanization and automation also rose, and automated control systems were installed at a number of enterprises. The quality and range of chemical products also improved; for example, the average nutrient content of mineral fertilizers increased from 29 percent in 1970 to 36 percent in 1975, the production of synthetic fibers and yarns increased from 27 percent of the total output of chemical fibers and yarns to 38 percent, and the percentage of new types of paint and varnish materials rose from 49 to 55 percent.

The average annual growth rate of labor productivity in the chemical industry was higher than for Soviet industry as a whole; between 1971 and 1975 the growth in labor productivity within the industry was 1.47 times greater than the overall growth registered by Soviet industry. Increased labor productivity in the chemical industry accounted for 82 percent of the production increase registered during this period. More than 70 percent of the total increase in labor productivity was due to scientific and technical progress.

In the foreign socialist countries, great success has also been achieved in the development of the chemical industry (see Table 2). In most of the countries the chemical industry began developing intensively after the establishment of people’s power. Between 1950 and 1976, the volume of chemical output rose by a factor of 86 in Bulgaria, 38 in Hungary, 10 in the German Democratic Republic, 33 in Poland, 118 in Rumania, and 20 in Czecho-Slovakia. The chemical industry in the socialist countries has become one of the leading branches of industry. Its accelerated development has been accompanied by substantial structural changes; for example, the percentage of organic chemicals and polymer materials derived primarily from petrochemical feedstocks has increased significantly.

Among the economically developed capitalist countries, the principal producers of chemicals are the USA, Japan, the Federal Republic of Germany, France, Great Britain, and Italy (see Table 3); they contribute approximately three-fourths of the capitalist output of chemical products. The development of the chemical industry has proceeded extremely unevenly; as a result, significant changes have occurred in the relative production capacities of the chemical industries of these countries. In the postwar years the USA’s position as leader among the capitalist countries in chemical production was weakened. In 1950 the USA accounted for 54 percent of the total capitalist production; in 1973 it accounted for only 35 percent. In the 1960’s Japan and the Federal Republic of Germany advanced to second and third places, respectively, in volume of chemical production, displacing Great Britain.

Table 3. Manufacture of the most important chemical products in selected capitalist countries (1975)
CountryMineral fertilizers1 (million tons)Sulfuric acid (monohydrate, million tons)Soda ash (100%, thousand tons)Caustic soda (100%, thousand tons)Plastics and synthetic resins2 (thousand tons)Chemical fibers (thousand tons)
1On the basis of 100% nutrient content
2 Excluding synthetic resins and intermediates for the production of synthetic fibers
Federal Republic of Germany5.14.21,2502,4925,040740
Great Britain1.33.21,4009001,700615


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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