Flooding in Texas, home to a vast chemical industry. Picture / Bloomberg
Few Americans care about ethylene. Many have probably never heard of it.
As it turns out, this colourless, flammable gas is arguably the most important petrochemical on the planet -- and much of it comes from the hurricane-stricken US Gulf Coast.
Ethylene is one of the big reasons the damage wrought by Hurricane Harvey is likely to ripple through US manufacturing of essential items.
"Ethylene really is the major petrochemical that impacts the entire industry," said Chirag Kothari, an analyst at consultant Nexant.
Texas alone produces nearly three quarters of the country's supply of one of the most basic chemical building blocks.
Ethylene is the foundation for making plastics essential to goods from car parts to nappies.
With Harvey shutting down almost all the state's plants, 61 per cent of US ethylene capacity has been closed, according to PetroChemWire.
Ethylene occurs naturally -- it's the gas given off by fruit as it ripens. But it also lies at the heart of the US$3.5 trillion ($4.9t) global chemical industry.
Processing plants turn the chemical into polyethylene, the world's most common plastic, used in rubbish bags and food packaging. When transformed into ethylene glycol, it's the antifreeze that keeps engines and aircraft wings from freezing, and it also becomes the polyester used in textiles and water bottles.
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