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What is ethylene?

Ethylene – also known as ethene - is a key building block for the petrochemical industry. It is a colourless, flammable gas with a slightly sweet odour and is the main product of the steam cracking of hydrocarbons such as naphtha and gas oil. In this process, the feedstock molecules are ‘cracked’ at high temperatures and in the presence of steam to produce, among other things, hydrogen, ethylene, propylene, butadiene, benzene and toluene.

How is ethylene used?

The applications of ethylene are numerous and ethylene derivatives are traded around the world.

Polyethylenes of various density and melt flow account for more than 50% of world ethylene demand. The primary use of polyethylene is in film applications for packaging, carrier bags and trash liners. Other applications include injection moulding, pipe extrusion, wire and cable sheathing and insulation, as well as extrusion coating of paper and cardboard.

Shell chemicals companies are also leading producers of three other principal ethylene derivatives: ethylene oxide, styrene monomer (via ethyl benzene) and linear higher olefins.

Ethylene oxide is a key raw material in the production of surfactants and detergents. It is also used to manufacture ethylene glycols, which are themselves important raw materials used in the production of textiles, plastics used for soft drink and food packaging, antifreeze, and ethylene oxide glycol ether solvents.

Styrene monomer is used principally in polystyrene for packaging and insulation, as well as in styrene butadiene rubber for tyres and footwear.

Linear higher olefins are used as base materials for the manufacture of detergents, plasticisers, synthetic lubricants and additives, but also as comonomers in the production of polyethylenes.

What are our key strengths in ethylene sector?

  • Strong manufacturing technology and cost position.     
  • Multiple, large scale manufacturing locations.
  • Strong logistics systems, particularly in Northern Europe and the US Gulf Coast.     
  • On-going commitment to sell ethylene in the merchant market. 
  • Long term involvement – more than 75 years - in the ethylene sector and an on-going commitment to it.
Ethylene brochures and manuals
Brochures and manuals
Ethylene Product Stewardship Manual

Shell chemicals resources