Chemical Properties and Common Uses of Acetone

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Industrial Applications of Acetone

Acetone’s usefulness as a solvent is paramount to its role in various industries. For instance, in the plastics industry it is used in the production of polystyrene and other plastics. It dissolves polystyrene, allowing for it to be molded into shapes for consumer use. In the pharmaceutical industry, it’s used in the production of drugs such as insulin and antibiotics, acting as a solvent and aiding in crystallization processes. In the fiber industry, it enables the creation of synthetic fibers for textiles.

Acetone in Chemical Manufacturing

Acetone is fundamental to the production of methyl methacrylate (MMA) and bisphenol-A (BPA). MMA is a key component in the production of poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA), commonly known as acrylic or acrylic glass, used in products like LCD screens, car lights, and signs. BPA is widely used in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins, which have applications from CDs to safety equipment, and consumer goods.

Historical Aspects of Acetone

While the discovery of acetone is accredited to French chemist Jean-Baptiste Dumas, it was Chaim Weizmann’s discovery of the Weizmann process that significantly improved the commercial production of acetone, using fermentation to produce it in large quantities. He later founded a company, Commercial Solvents Corporation, which in the 1920s and 1930s was the largest producer of acetone. During World War I, the demand for acetone spiked due to its use in explosives production. The Chilworth Gunpowder Factory in Surrey, England was a notable acetone production site during this time.

Additional Uses of Acetone

Aside from the applications mentioned, acetone also works as a denaturant in alcohol, makes a good solvent for cleaning tools, and is used to prepare metal surfaces prior to painting or soldering. It is used in the beauty industry, chiefly in nail polish remover, but also in various skin peels.

Environmental Impact

Despite being photochemically reactive, acetone does not harm the ozone layer. However, it’s classified as a Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) and can contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, a key component in smog. It is also harmful to aquatic life in large quantities. Acetone is regulated under certain waste management codes and organizations are advised to follow these regulations when disposing of acetone waste.

Advantages and Limitations

Acetone stands out for its excellent solvency, rapid evaporation, and high flammability. These properties render it desirable in many manufacturing processes, although the same properties can cause safety concerns. It is less toxic compared to many other solvents, but exposure to large quantities can lead to health issues. Acetone can dissolve certain types of plastic, which limits its storage options.

Safety Measures

The handling and storage of acetone should always prioritize safety due to its high flammability and potential to damage certain materials, such as some types of plastic. Inhalation, ingestion or skin contact can have harmful effects. Personal protective equipment such as gloves and safety goggles should be worn when working with acetone and suitable ventilation should be ensured.

Acetone’s Role in Warfare

Acetone was a crucial material during World War I due to its use as a solvent in the production of cordite, a smokeless propellant crucial for modern artillery. The British government openly encouraged scientists to find a better method of producing acetone, prompting Chaim Weizmann to develop what is now known as the Weizmann process, and by 1916, breweries throughout Britain had been repurposed towards production of acetone.

Interactive Chemical Structure

Here you can view an interactive 3D model of acetone’s chemical structure.

Tests for Acetone

Testing for the presence of acetone can be conducted via a variety of methods including gas chromatography, color reaction tests, or mass spectrometry. High levels of acetone can also be detected in human breath and bodily fluids indirectly detecting the presence of certain diseases like diabetes.

Acetone Alternatives

While acetone is generally considered safe for use and is less toxic than many alternatives, there are situations where alternatives might be more suitable. Methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) and toluene are effective alternatives as solvents, and soy-based solvents are being explored as less toxic, more sustainable options. However, each alternative has its own set of advantages and disadvantages that may affect their suitability for specific applications.