What is involved in the production of acetone?

scientist with beakers

The majority of acetone production worldwide in 2011 is done through what is known as the cumene process, a hydrolysis reaction of cumene hydroperoxide. More than 90% of acetone production is generated this way and involves a reaction between plastic propylene and the aromatic compound benzene. The output of the two chemical compounds is phenol and acetone, and for every pound (0.45 kg) of phenol that is produced by the reaction, approximately 0.62 pound (0.28 kg) of acetone is created. Some acetone is also generated from a dehydrogenation reaction process involving isopropyl alcohol or through the direct hydrogenation of various hydrocarbons.

The cumene process for producing acetone was first discovered by Rudolf Yur’evich Uldris in Russia in 1942, and the production of acetone with it began in 1949 in Russia and Canada. In 1953, 8,000 metric tons per year were generated in Canada, and by the year 2002, the United States alone was producing 1,839,000 metric tons of the chemical. Commercially, 75% of the acetone produced in the US is used to make other chemicals, 12% is used as a universal solvent, and the remaining 13% has a variety of purposes from manufacturing adhesives to pharmaceuticals.

The cumene chemical reaction is a fairly simple process. Cumene, which itself is a solvent, C 9 H 12 , is derived from the propylation of benzene and then oxidized to produce cumene hydroperoxide. The reaction takes place in a water-based emulsion containing sodium carbonate, Na 2 CO 3 , at a temperature of 194° to 266° Fahrenheit (90° to 130° Celsius) and a pressure of 72 to 145 pounds per square inch ( 5 to 10 bar). The oxidized state of cumene as cumene hydroperoxide is then concentrated in vacuum columns where a process of cleaving or splitting covalent molecular bonds is used to separate it into phenol and acetone.

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The production of acetone that involves the use of isopropyl alcohol requires combining i-propyl alcohol with water and steam in a vaporization chamber that is heated to a temperature where all the chemicals react with each other. The reaction is facilitated by circulating the compounds in a turbulent flow, and the useful products of the reaction are acetone and hydrogen. Residues generated in the reaction include water and a little i-propyl alcohol. The acetone is then separated from the hydrogen gas in a scrubber and producing acetone in this way results in a purity of 99% by volume.

Although acetone can also be generated by bacterial fermentation processes or by dry distillation of acetates, the cumene process came to dominate as of 2011. This is due to the fact that the input chemicals for the benzene and propylene process are considered to be abundant and inexpensive compounds. On the other hand, phenol and acetone are valuable industrial chemicals used in the millions of tons all over the world in the 21st century.

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