What’s furfural?

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Furfural is an organic chemical made from agricultural by-products and used in industrial products such as herbicides, fungicides, and solvents. It is made through acid hydrolysis and is soluble in water, ether, and ethanol. Exposure to furfural can cause irritation to the skin, mucous membranes, and eyes. It was first developed in 1832 and is still commonly made from oat hulls.

Furfural is a chemical composed of organic matter that is typically produced for industrial purposes. It is mainly composed of agricultural by-products such as oat husks, bran, corn on the cob and sawdust. Some of the products it is used in include herbicides, fungicides, and solvents. It is also a familiar element in the production of transportation fuels and in the lubricating oil refining process. The chemical is also a building block in the manufacture of many other industrial agents.

When mass-produced, the chemical is made by putting pentosan polysaccharides through the process of acid hydrolysis, which means that the cellulose and starches of the base material are converted into sugar using the acid. In an airtight container, furfural is viscous, colorless, and oily, and has an almond-like scent. Exposure to air may color the liquid yellow to brown.

Furfural is somewhat soluble in water and completely soluble in ether and ethanol. In addition to its uses as a solitary chemical, it is used in the manufacture of chemicals such as furan, furfuil, nitrofurans and methylfuran. These chemicals are also used in the further manufacture of products including agricultural chemicals, pharmaceuticals and stabilizers.

There are several ways humans come into contact with furfural. In addition to exposure to the chemical during processing, it can be found naturally in different types of foods. Exposure to light of this nature has not been shown to be harmful.

Heavy exposure to furfural can be toxic. In laboratory tests on humans and animals, furfural was found to be an irritant to the skin, mucous membranes and eyes. It also reportedly caused throat and respiratory discomfort. Some reported short-term effects of exposure to the chemical in poorly ventilated areas include difficulty breathing, numb tongue, and inability to taste. Possible long-term effects of this type of exposure can range from skin conditions such as eczema and photosensitivity to vision problems and pulmonary edema.

Furfural first came into widespread use in 1922 when the Quaker Oats Company began making it from oat hulls. Oats continue to be one of the most popular ways to make the chemical. Before that, it was used regularly in only a few brands of perfume. It was first developed in 1832 by Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner, a German chemist who used ant carcasses to create formic acid, of which furfural was a byproduct. The ants are believed to have been effective in creating the chemical because their bodies contained the type of plant matter currently used for crafting.

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