In this Complete Guide to Acetone, we’ll explore what it is, how it’s made, its uses, hazards, and specifications. You’ll also find further information and reading material in the links at the bottom of this page, and of course you can buy acetone from ReAgent, one of the UK’s leading acetone suppliers.
What Is Acetone?
Acetone is an organic compound with the formula C3H6O – it contains three carbon atoms, six hydrogen atoms, and one oxygen atom. The carbon atoms are what makes it organic. Acetone is also commonly called propanone.
Acetone is both volatile and flammable. It’s colourless and is known as the simplest and smallest ketone. A ketone is an organic compound which contains a carbonyl group bonded to two hydrocarbon groups.
Acetone is not just a manufactured chemical; it is found in the metabolic processes of humans and animals, and it is also found in nature.
But when we did start manufacturing acetone, this is what happened… Acetone was first made as early as the late Middle Ages through the dry distillation of metal acetates. Fast-forward to 1832, and French chemist Jean-Baptiste Dumas and German chemist Justus von Liebig created the empirical formula. The following year, French chemist Antoine Bussy gave acetone its name by adding the suffix -one to the stem of the corresponding acid – acetic acid. During the First World War, Chaim Weizmann, a senior lecturer in biochemistry at the University of Manchester, successfully created what he modestly called the Weizmann Process – the method for producing acetone on an industrial scale.
Bonus Acetone Fact!
On 30th July 2015, tests and measurements recorded by the Philae lander on comet 67P showed up sixteen organic compounds. Four of these compounds had never previously been found on a comet, including acetamide, methyl isocyanate, propionaldehyde – and acetone.
How Is Acetone Made?
As we’ve already seen, acetone was first manufactured on a truly industrial scale during World War One and was used to produce armaments as a key ingredient of cordite. This was the Weizmann process, a fermentation process that converted starch (a poly-sugar made from corn and potatoes) into acetone, butanol, and ethanol. This process was facilitated by the bacteria Clostridium acetobutylicum and is also known as the ABE process. The purity of acetone produced in this way was higher than ever before.
According to the Weizmann Compass, this new method of production had far greater implications than simply facilitating the manufacture of acetone:
“The rapid wartime expansion of this process, from laboratory to industrial scale, was not only unusual among microbiological processes used in industry, it also set a precedent for the rapid expansion of penicillin production during World War II and for the wide scope of applied biotechnological processes that came afterward.”
Next Steps in Acetone Production
By the late 1920s, this ABE production method was becoming expensive and outdated. Industries were demanding more efficient and cost-effective methods of production, and manufacturers shifted to n-butanol production. With the development of cheaper, synthetic petrochemical production methods which returned better yields, ABE production plants started to close down. The last production plant in the U.S. closed during the 1950s, although in less developed countries the last of the plants didn’t close until the 1980s.
Nowadays, the global demand for acetone exceeds $13 billion, and it’s produced using the cumene process which synthesises phenol and acetone from benzene and propylene. Approximately 83% of the world’s acetone is produced using this process, in which benzene is alkylated with propylene to produce cumene. The cumene is then oxidised by air and produces phenol and acetone.
Other less efficient processes used to make acetone are the oxidation of propylene in the Wacker-Hoechst process, and the hydration of propylene to give 2-propanol. The 2-propanol is then oxidised into acetone.
Uses of Acetone
Acetone is dissimilar to other alcohols like ethanol as it is a ketone. This means it doesn’t have as much energy content as other alcohols so it isn’t used in fuels, but it can dissolve residues and that makes acetone a great solvent – and a great cleaner.
Uses of Acetone as a Solvent
Acetone is an important solvent in industrial and laboratory settings but it also has domestic applications, the most well-known of which is removing nail varnish.
Around one-third of the world’s acetone use is as a solvent. Some examples of this use across different industries include:
- For a range of plastics and some synthetic fibres
- To thin polyester resin, paints, and varnishes as the volatile component
- Cleaning tools
- Preparing metal prior to painting
- In the production of pharmaceuticals
- In the textile industry for degreasing wool and degumming silk
A quarter of global acetone production is used as an intermediate chemical building block in the synthesis of methyl methacrylate (MMA) and bisphenol A (BPA). This is then used to make polymethyl methacrylate acrylic (PMMA) plastics. PMMA is also known as acrylic, plexiglass, and acrylic glass, and has uses as varied as aeroplane windows, artificial joints, acrylic paints, tinned food liners, and bathroom fittings.
Due to acetone’s low cost and volatility, it is commonly used as a solvent for rinsing laboratory glassware, removing both residues and solids before the glassware is given a final wash.
It is also used in laboratory experiments:
- Acetone can be cooled with dry ice to −78 °C without freezing, so it is ideal for conducting chemical reactions at low temperatures
- It is fluorescent under ultraviolet light, so its vapour is used as a fluorescent tracer in fluid flow experiments
- Acetone is also used to precipitate proteins, a process which concentrates and purifies proteins against contaminants
Uses in Cosmetics
Acetone is used in chemical peeling procedures. Prior to treatment, acetone is used to clean the skin and remove excess oils and fat. This process is called defatting.
As we’ve seen, acetone is the main ingredient in many nail varnish removers. It breaks the varnish down, making it easy to remove. It is also used as a solvent in make-up and skin creams.
Can You Drink Acetone?
Well, maybe the question should be ‘why would you ever want to drink acetone?’ While our bodies can handle exposure to acetone and we produce it through metabolic processes, especially in our blood and urine, and break it down naturally, there really is no reason (and it could potentially be very harmful) to drink acetone.
Acetone is generally recognised as having low acute and low chronic toxicity, but if you are overexposed to acetone, poisoning symptoms are similar to those of drunkenness and can include headaches, slurred speech, and lack of coordination. You’re also likely to become very lethargic and have a sweet taste in your mouth. More acute symptoms include low blood pressure, slipping into a stupor or even a coma, or even death.
Hazards Of Acetone
Humans, animals, and the environment can readily deal with fairly high levels of exposure to acetone, which is about equal to table salt in terms of toxicity. This is probably because almost all animals and plants produce acetone naturally. It is also completely biodegradable in the air, water, and soil. However, that does not mean it is without hazards, and it should be handled and stored with care.
The most hazardous property of acetone is its flammability. At a flash point of −20°C, air mixtures of between 2.5% and 12.8% acetone may explode. Acetone vapours can also flow along surfaces to ignition sources and flash back.
During the oxidisation process, acetone forms acetone peroxide as a by-product. Acetone peroxide is highly unstable, and highly explosive.
Health Effects of Acetone
There is no strong evidence of chronic health effects as long as precautions in handling, storage, and exposure are followed. If acetone comes into contact with skin it asks as an irritant, and has a slightly more severe effect if it comes into contact with eyes.
Acetone has undergone regulatory and scientific evaluations under the European Chemical Agency’s REACH program, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Programme on Chemical Safety, and EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) assessment program.
Acetone (General Use) Specification
|Maximum Limits of Impurities|
|Weight per ml at 20°C||0.789 – 0.791||g|
|Acidity (as CH₃COOH)||0.002||%|
|Non Volatile Matter||<10||mg/kg|
Acetone Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS)
You can find the material safety data sheets for various grades of acetone below. These MSDSs list the potential hazards (including health, fire, reactivity and environmental hazards) of acetone and how to use or work with it safely.
Where To Buy Acetone
You can buy acetone from a variety of places. As a consumer, you can readily find it in the form of nail varnish remover in pharmacies, supermarkets, and through online retailers.
Businesses Buying Acetone
If you are a business looking for a recognised, reputable company to buy your acetone from, a chemical supplier such as ReAgent will be able to help. Why?
- Reliability is a top priority for reputable chemical suppliers
- Look for an established company with a proven track record and thousands of happy customers
- You will get advice on the best type of acetone (analytical, general or laboratory use) for your needs
- With ReAgent, you’ll get free technical support before you buy, plus after-sales support
- Chemical companies often have quality accreditations – at ReAgent we hold ISO 9001 and ISO 14000
- Reliable couriers mean your order will be delivered on time and in full
- Ask about certificates of conformity and analysis if you needed
- You can create an account and place regular orders easily
However, many chemical companies don’t supply acetone direct to consumers. This is the case at ReAgent, where we only supply chemicals to businesses.
Useful Acetone Resources
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