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Information @ a Glance


  • Classified as an alkene, ethene (or ethylene).

  • Ethylene is the chemical compound with the formula C2H4. It is the simplest alkene. Because it contains a double bond, ethylene is called an unsaturated hydrocarbon or an olefin.

  • Alkenes are also referred to as "olefins" due to their oil-forming characteristics. The location of the double bond determines the reactivity site, or functional group property.

Production and Process

  • Ethylene is produced in the petrochemical industry by steam cracking.

  • In this process, gaseous or light liquid hydrocarbons are heated to 750–950 °C, inducing numerous free radical reactions followed by immediate quench to freeze the reactions. This process converts large hydrocarbons into smaller ones and introduces unsaturation. Ethylene is separated from the resulting complex mixture by repeated compression and distillation.

  • Ethylene can be conveniently produced in the laboratory by distilling absolute ethanol with an excess of concentrated sulfuric acid and washing the distillate vapor stream in an aqueous solution of sodium hydroxide to remove the sulfur dioxide contaminant.

  • Small quantities of dilute ethylene can be obtained from refinery streams. In South Africa, ethylene is produced by the Fisher-Tropsch process from gases obtained by coal gasification.

  • Efforts have been made to develop processes which can crack crude or residual oil but they suffer from high operating costs.

  • Ethylene may also be produced from ethanol in fixed or fluid-bed reaction systems.


  • Ethylene is a naturally produced gas that is the ripening trigger for most fruit, vegetables, flowers and ornamentals. It is therefore an important factor to be considered in the management strategy when storing these products.

  • Ethylene plays a role in the postharvest life of many horticultural crops.

  • The application of ethylene at a controlled rate means that the products can be presented to the customer as “ready to eat”.

  • Ethylene is used as a raw material in the production of plastics, fibers and other organic chemicals that are ultimately consumed in the packaging, transportation and construction industries and in a multitude of industrial and consumer markets.


  • As one of the largest-volume petrochemicals worldwide with such a diverse derivative portfolio, ethylene is often used as a surrogate for the performance of the petrochemical industry at large. As such, ethylene demand is sensitive to both economic and energy cycles.

  • The global ethylene production amounted to about 110 million metric tons, with an estimated value of $122 billion.

  • Global demand for ethylene is forecast to grow 4.6% per year during 2006-2011, and then slow to 3.4% from 2011 through 2016. The largest world market for ethylene is the production of polymers, principally polyethylenes. During 2006–2011, polyethylenes will continue to be the largest consumer of ethylene and are expected to grow by 4.2% per year.

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