At no other time has the petrochemical industry been so needed. As the world scrambles to find personal protection equipment in a pandemic environment, petroleum products and natural gas liquids provide the six base materials used to manufacture virtually every human health product on Earth. Those six include polypropylene, polyurethane, paraxylene, ethanol, ethylene and isopropanol.

Demand for N95 masks and hand sanitizers grabbed headlines early and around the world—and the shortage hasn’t gone unnoticed by the nation’s petrochemical manufacturers working in tandem with the federal government to keep supplies coming and reduce the virus transmission.

According to Jim Cooper, senior petrochemical advisor at the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers association (AFPM), medical-grade N95 masks require spun-bonded polypropylene, which makes the fibers used to create a breathable fabric that offers protection from pathogens and droplets. These masks also use polyurethane around the nose for a proper fit, polypropylene in the filter, and paraxylene used in polyester for the mask shell.

Not surprisingly, China in late January ramped up its production of polypropylene and polyvinyl chloride following the Coronavirus outbreak and supplied the market with 2,500 tons of medical-grade polypropylene during the first half of February. Here at home, engineers are experimenting with face shield designs using polypropylene and polyethylene for their prototypes. The now hoard-crazed hand sanitizers require ethanol or isopropanol (isopropyl alcohol) to ensure disinfection.

AFPM says it’s working with the government to maximize the supply of ethanol to make much-needed sanitizers; however, U.S. ethanol plants also have fallen victim to COVID-19 and its ripple effects on both domestic and global demand. We’re not driving much right now, corn prices have slumped, and ethanol inventory levels are at an unprecedented peak.

Nevertheless, Cooper says his member petrochem companies are in the full and upright position for the challenge to produce those six essential raw ingredients that also lie behind disposable surgical and hospital gowns, respirators, and more sterilized environments. Talk about great chemistry. Let’s give these guys a hand.

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