According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, about 23 L (13%) out of every barrel of oil is turned into "other products":

Petroleum products from a barrel of crude oil

The other 150 L or so is turned into things which are burned for energy -- wind and solar PV (with battery backing) are already on course to replace the need for these.

But what about the other stuff? Wikipedia has an exhaustive list of petrochemicals which includes such things as:

  • Cosmetics raw materials
  • Food additives
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Specialty and life sciences chemicals

Is crude oil the only practical source for these petrochemicals? Or are there comparable plant-based alternatives available?

  • Wiki seems to have left off a very large category - plastic or polymers. Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 20:46
  • 1
    "Practical" is ,of course totally arbitrary , so you can make the answer anything you want . . It seemed to me chemical engineers could turn any thing into something for a price. Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 20:50
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    @blacksmith37 plastic is there if you scroll down -- the page isn't organized very well. Regarding "practical" this is inherently hard to define. If an alternative is 2x the cost, it may be practical, or at least it's in striking distance if costs can improve. But if it's 10x the cost, it's unlikely ever to be practical. The challenge is figuring out a cutoff in between two extremes.
    – LShaver
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 4:18
  • Helium is a petroleum (by) product: sciences360.com/index.php/where-does-helium-come-from-2-8230 Hydrogen is the only alternative for cooling and lifting, argon for welding and as a shielding gas. The alternatives are often much worse in many respects - pure argon makes it hard to strike an arc when welding, for example, so 1% helium is preferred. For cryogenics hydrogen is a PITA even compared to helium because it reacts with everything, percolates through things, and catches fire/explodes if you look at it funny.
    – Móż
    Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 22:29
  • QANTAS will be using "biofuel" in its jets from LA to Australia from 2020, supposedly. However it is not 100% biofuel, it will be a 50:50 blend of traditional jet fuel with biofuel made from non-food plant oils.
    – Fred
    Commented Feb 7, 2021 at 23:05

1 Answer 1


Hmm. Going after your intent, I'm going to lump all fossil fuel into this, and include coal and natural gas too.

I'm going to also assume that while the chemical engineers can turn almost any organic into any other organic for a price, we will consider that you really mean, "without breaking the bank"

  • Asphalt. Used in huge quantities, and the only real alternative to it is concrete, which is even more expensive. Asphalt, however is quite reusable, and increasingly you see them chip off 2 inches of road surface, then they reheat it mix in a small amount of rock and more asphalt, and re-lay it down.

  • Roofing tar. Not used in the same quanities, but not using a hot sealed roof would essentially require building a sloped roof on top of the roof.

  • Asphalt shingles. This does have an alternative -- fiberglass and various plastic shingles, and metal roofing. Metal roofing is a reasonable alternative. More expensive for the material, but it goes on fast. But building codes in many cities don't differentiate between the old galvanized 'rusty tin roof' and the powder coated easter egg colours of modern galvalum, or the textured metal shingles (not cheap) that are available now.

  • Tires

  • Plastics. There are degradable plastics coming out now (good thing) mostly made from corn starch, with all the sustainable issues of corn production. For one shot use this is a good idea. Lots of plastic however is longer term and you need materials that won't be eaten by your local neighbourhood bacteria or fungus.

  • Fertilizer. This one boils down to energy. Most nitrogen fertilizer starts as ammonia which in turn is made from natural gas. There are other processes for making ammonia, but they are more expensive.

Many of the things that use methane, (primary component of natural gas) use is as a source for hydrogen. All of these could use electrolytically split water for their hydrogen. Right now electricty is too expensive to use this way, but it may be a reasonable way to use surplus renewable electricity. One advantage of electrolysis is that it's easy to turn on and off, unlike many chemical processes.

  • Metallurgical coal.
  • One advantage of asphalt roads is they flexible, whereas ones that use concrete are rigid. In the long term the implication of this is concrete roads can become cracked & prone to water damage, sections of concrete pavement can rise & fall differentially creating blocky uneven surfaces.
    – Fred
    Commented Feb 7, 2021 at 22:59

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