Petrochemical products–materials derived from the processing of petroleum oils and gases–are so abundant in modern life that they often go unnoticed. This may explain embarrassing situations such as when protesters, clothed in materials and fibers derived from petroleum, claim that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is unnecessary and should be banned—a situation that once prompted Alex Epstein to point out “your clothes are fracked!”
But how exactly does the hydraulic fracturing of an oil and gas well lead to the shirt on a protesters back? You can call it the path from petroleum to polymers. Let’s start at the end and work our way back.
Every year, over one hundred million tonnes of mass consumption petrochemical polymers are produced in the world. Names like polyethylene terephthalate (PET), Polyethylene, and Polypropylene, may not be recognizable to many people, but the industrial and household products these materials are manufactured into most certainly are.
For instance, polyethylene terephthalate (PET)–more commonly known as polyester–is present in products as ubiquitous as water bottles, mouse pads and LCD screens. Polyester yarns are woven in with cotton, wool, and rayon fibers to make the lightweight and low cost fabrics of suits, pants, shirts, and skirts.
One of the many materials derived from Polyethylene (PE) is synthetic rubber, such as those in the heels and souls of shoes, while polypropylene (PP) is used in weatherproof clothing, thermal underwear, diapers, and safety apparel.
Polymers are produced by a process called polymerization, where single molecules are linked together in long chains. The single molecules, called base chemicals, include ethene, propene and butene. There are many methods of polymerization, all with the specific purpose of taking a monomer such as ethene–which is composed of two carbon atoms and four hydrogen atoms–and using intense heat, pressure and possibly a catalyst to join many thousands of these single ethene molecules together to give the single product polyethylene (polyethene).
And of course, before these base chemicals are processed into polymers, which are processed into clothing, which is worn by protesters wanting to stop hydraulic fracturing, these base chemicals must first be produced.
The base chemicals are manufactured from refined components of raw oil and natural gas such as ethane, propane, or butane. Butane and propane are the recognizable hydrocarbon products used as lighter fluid or to fuel our barbecues. Ethane is the second lightest hydrocarbon molecule behind methane, the primary component of natural gas.
Before these components can be refined from raw natural gas and oil, the oil and gas must be produced—which is very often made possible by hydraulic fracturing (fracking).
The path from raw petroleum and natural gas, to ethane, to ethene, to the polyethylene terephthalate (polyester) clothing worn by an anti-fracking protester is technologically complex, but the fundamental relationship between raw materials and consumer product can be grasped by anyone—and it should help us to appreciate how much of the world around us is made possible by fossil fuels and the people who bring them from the ground to our cars…and our closets.