From hand sanitizer to ventilators: petrochemicals are essential to the fight against COVID-19

Workforce |  3 min. read

The novel coronavirus has put a newfound emphasis on a wide range of products and technologies that most of us had taken for granted in the past. We’re all learning new terms like social distancing and PPE, and using Zoom and FaceTime more than we ever thought possible.

Like so many of the products we all rely on every day for our quality of life, a huge number of the equipment, tools, and devices used to fight COVID-19 are made with petroleum-based products. It is just the latest instance where products based on petroleum are playing a critical role in our health and wellbeing, and America’s fuel and petrochemical manufacturers are stepping up to the challenge in a big way.

Hand sanitizer and soap to the rescue

A main tool for preventing the spread of the virus is through proper, consistent hygiene – be it with hand sanitizer or hand washing. What many of us don’t realize the essential role that petrochemicals play in each of those products.

Hand sanitizer, which is particularly handy for all those situations where you can’t quickly access hand washing – like touching a grocery store cart or doctor’s office door, also begins with petrochemicals. Alcohols like ethanol and isopropanol are key to breaking up the COVID-19 cells. ExxonMobil and other l manufacturers have ramped up production of isopropyl alcohol in recent weeks to meet the demand.

Keeping health care workers protected

For health care workers on the front line of the fight against COVID-19, access to personal protective equipment – or a lack thereof – has been at the heart of the response. Petrochemicals are critical building blocks to the manufacturing of many of these supplies, including masks, nitrile gloves, and medical-grade garments.

The N-95 masks that have become a part of our lexicon in recent months rely on polymers made from petroleum derivatives to do their job. Polypropylene materials from propylene make up the filtration mechanisms, while the outside shell and covering are made from polyester from xylene. Even the polyurethane foam nosepiece relies on petrochemicals, in this case toluene.

Similarly, nitrile and vinyl gloves, which provide alternatives to traditional latex gloves, utilize petrochemical-based materials, like ethylene for the vinyl and propylene for the nitrile, in their manufacturing. Both are particularly useful given their unique resistance to a number of viruses, germs, chemicals and compounds.

Medical garments, including the disposable gowns that help protect nurses and doctors treating or testing COVID-19 patients, also rely on polypropylene in their manufacturing processes. Specialized non-woven materials from the polymer help keep the virus at bay, supporting these life-saving workers.

Supporting testing and treatment

Petrochemicals are also playing a role in the testing and treatment aspects of this pandemic. The test kits, made up of polypropylene and other types of plastics, polymers, and sample-collection materials depend on petrochemicals at each step of the process.

Similarly, the ventilators and other diagnostic and treatment devices in hospitals across the country, helping to serve patients in various states of illness are manufactured with supplies derived from petrochemical building blocks. Some of the more common – by common we mean high-tech, engineering resin – polymers are polyetheretherketone (PEEK) that starts with benzene, toluene and propylene; polyetherimide (PEI) that begins with propylene, benzene and xylene; polyphenylsulfone that uses benzene as the building block; and, nylon that starts with butadiene and benzene.

Stepping up to the challenge

While many of us may not have realized the essential role that petroleum-based products play in the health care industry, these materials are as important as ever during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the beginning of the novel coronavirus threat, fuel and petrochemical manufacturers have been stepping up to meet the challenge, flexing their operations to meet demand.

These companies will continue working to supply the materials and products needed to stop the spread of the virus and to help ensure health care workers have the supplies needed to treat those infected.

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