Fine chemicals are complex, single, pure chemical substances, produced in limited quantities in multipurpose plants by multistep batch chemical or biotechnological processes. They are described by exacting specifications, used for further processing within the chemical industry and sold for more than $10/kg (see the comparison of fine chemicals, commodities and specialties). The class of fine chemicals is subdivided either on the basis of the added value (building blocks, advanced intermediates or active ingredients), or the type of business transaction, namely standard or exclusive products.
Fine chemicals are produced in limited volumes (< 1000 tons/year) and at relatively high prices (> $10/kg) according to exacting specifications, mainly by traditional organic synthesis in multipurpose chemical plants. Biotechnical processes are gaining ground. The global production value is about $85 billion. Fine chemicals are used as starting materials for specialty chemicals, particularly pharmaceuticals, biopharmaceuticals and agrochemicals. Custom manufacturing for the life science industry plays a big role; however, a significant portion of the fine chemicals total production volume is manufactured in house by large users. The industry is fragmented and extends from small, privately owned companies to divisions of big, diversified chemical enterprises. The term "fine chemicals" is used in distinction to "heavy chemicals", which are produced and handled in large lots and are often in a crude state.
Since their inception in the late 1970s, fine chemicals have become an important part of the chemical industry. The total production value of $85 billion is split about 60 / 40 among in-house production by the main consumers, the life science industry, on the one hand, and the fine chemicals industry on the other hand. The latter pursues both a “supply push” strategy, whereby standard products are developed in-house and offered ubiquitously, and a “demand pull” strategy, whereby products or services determined by the customer are provided exclusively on a “one customer / one supplier” basis. The products are mainly used as building blocks for proprietary products. The hardware of the top tier fine chemical companies has become almost identical. The design, lay-out and equipment of the plants and laboratories has become practically the same all over the world. Most chemical reactions performed go back to the days of the dyestuff industry. Numerous regulations determine the way labs and plants have to be operated, thereby contributing to the uniformity.