The chemical industry does have potential for growth because it encompasses so many different sectors. This historical piece offers some great insight.
Electrochemistry is one important area of chemical growth that has been created by increased integration between chemistry and electronics. Particularly exciting to chemists is the synthesis of new materials as superconductors of electricity.
Another new area in the field of electrochemistry is a fuel cell for converting chemical energy into electricity without any moving parts. The attraction of fuel cells lies in their capacity for converting 70 percent or more of the input energy into electrical energy compared with the meager 40 percent top efficiency of even the most advanced heat engines.
The potential applications of fuel cells are virtually unlimited, with their most immediate uses in military communications and space exploration.
In the field of radiation chemistry, researchers are beginning to divert the awesome destructive power of massive atomic radiation to the peaceful service of mankind. Sweeping rearrangements of atoms through radiation result in new products of extraordinary strength and versatility. An irradiated polyethylene plastic, for example, is five times stronger than the ordinary polyethylene plastic.
Perhaps the fastest-growing segment of the chemical industry is "petrochemicals," though some are a little confused about its status.
Essentially, petrochemicals are any one of the organic compounds from oil or gas. They sprang from the success of scientists in unlocking the vast potential stored inside the molecules of petroleum. They have improved on nature by breaking up and rearranging these hydrocarbon molecules.
More than 3,000 different hydrocarbon compounds have been produced from oil and natural gas. So far, some 300 of them are commercially important. But scientists believe there are many more useful hydrocarbon derivatives still to be discovered. The word "petrochemicals" describes one of the fastest growing industries in the United States today.
Nylon is probably the petrochemical synthetic the public knows best. Nearly as well known is polyethylene, the glamorous petrochemical that became the first billion-pound plastic. An up-and-coming plastic is the rugged, lightweight polypropylene, which is expected to create another new generation of plastic applications.
Plastics have successfully invaded areas ranging from household detergent containers to missile nose cones. No one in our modern civilization can go through our average day without using and being influenced by plastics in some manner. And much of the future growth of the industry will be based on materials we haven't even discovered, products no one has yet thought of.
Recently The Wall Street Journal had an interesting story under the heading of "Plastics vs. Plastics." It concerned the internecine war among the plastics, which was considered the natural result of the continuing development of new and improved types of plastics. As better plastics come along, they push older material out of some of their markets. Many of the newer plastics offer more versatility or greater economy than the old materials.
"Today," according to the Journal, "there are more than 30 families of plastics on the market and within these families there are thousands of variations. Some plastics are flexible, some brittle, some hard as steel; almost any desired characteristic."
Together with synthetic fibers, plastics account principally for the strongest individual segments of the chemical industry, with their rate of growth substantially ahead of the industry as a whole. In the decade ending in 1960, plastics production rose 170 percent and for synthetic fibers growth in output has increased by 300 percent.