How is acetone produced?

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Over 90% of acetone production is generated through the cumene process, involving a reaction between propylene and benzene. The process was discovered in 1942 and is used commercially to make other chemicals, solvents, and pharmaceuticals. Other methods include using isopropyl alcohol or bacterial fermentation, but the cumene process dominates due to the abundance and affordability of the input chemicals.

Most of the production of acetone worldwide as of 2011 occurs through the so-called cumene process, a hydrolysis reaction of cumene hydroperoxide. Over 90% of acetone production is generated this way and involves a reaction between the plastic propylene and the aromatic compound benzene. The output of the two chemical compounds is phenol and acetone, and for every pound (0.45 kilogram) of phenol produced by the reaction, approximately 0.62 pound (0.28 kilogram) of acetone is created. Some acetone is also generated by a dehydrogenation reaction process involving isopropyl alcohol or through the direct hydrogenation of various hydrocarbons.

The cumene process for making acetone was first discovered by Rudolf Yur’evich Uldris in Russia in 1942, and production of acetone using it started in 1949 in Russia and Canada. In 1953, 8,000 tons were being produced in Canada annually and, in 2002, the United States alone was producing 1,839,000 tons of the chemical. Commercially, 75% of the acetone produced in the United States is used to make other chemicals, 12% is used as a general purpose solvent, and the remaining 13% has a variety of purposes, from making adhesives to pharmaceuticals.

The chemical reaction of cumene is a fairly simple process. Cumene, which itself is a solvent, C9H12, is derived from the propylation of benzene and then oxidized to produce cumene hydroperoxide. The reaction occurs in a water-based emulsion containing sodium carbonate, Na2CO3, at a temperature of 194° to 266° Fahrenheit (90° to 130° Celsius) and a pressure of 72 to 145 pounds per square inch (5 at 10 bars). The oxidized state of cumene as cumene hydroperoxide is then concentrated in vacuum columns where a covalent molecular bond cleavage or cleavage process is used to separate it into phenol and acetone.

Making acetone using isopropyl alcohol requires combining i-propyl alcohol with water and steam in a vaporization chamber heated to a temperature where the chemicals all 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. The wastes generated in the reaction include water and some 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 using bacterial fermentation processes or through the dry distillation of acetates, the cumene process has come to dominate as of 2011. This is due to the fact that the input chemicals for the benzene process and propylene are considered to be quite cheap and abundant compounds. In contrast, phenol and acetone are valuable industrial chemicals used in millions of tons worldwide in the 21st century.

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