Acrylic acid became commercially available when routes based on the reaction of acetylene with water and carbon monoxide, or an alcohol and carbon monoxide to give acrylic acid, were developed. Another early process was the reaction of ketene, obtained by the pyrolysis of acetone or acetic acid, with formaldehyde. All these processes are now obsolete.
Modern plants are based on the gas phase catalytic oxidation of propylene via acrolein. The reaction can be carried out in single- or two-step processes but the latter is favoured because of higher yields. The oxidation of propylene produces acrolein, acrylic acid, acetaldehyde and carbon oxides. Acrylic acid from the primary oxidation can be recovered while the acrolein is fed to a second step to make acrylic acid. Purification can be carried out by azeotropic distillation.
Korea's LG Chem has developed a process that employs a new reactor design and purification technique. The reaction temperature is claimed to be easier to control under severe conditions, enhancing the stability of the system and minimising byproducts while improving catalyst life. In the purification section, the efficiency of the absorption unit has been improved, reducing the size of the equipment and leading to capital and energy savings, says LG.
A process based on propane, instead of propylene, is being developed by Rohm and Haas, with support from Englehard, following the award of a $5.2m grant from the US Department of Energy. Rohm and Haas's expertise in oxidation catalyst research will be complemented by Englehard's development work in monolithic catalysts used to control emissions. The companies will screen and test catalysts with the University of Delaware providing computational modelling capabilities. The process is expected to give significant savings in manufacturing costs as well as reducing pollution.
US ethanol producer Cargill and the Danish enzymes manufacturer Novozymes are developing a technology that could produce acrylic acid from 3-hydroxypropionic acid using sugar as the feedstock. Engineered microorganisms ferment the sugar to make 3-hydroxypropionic acid. The project has received $1.5m funding from the US Department of Energy with the technology expected to be commercially viable by 2013.
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Acrylic acid and esters are a versatile series on monomers that provide the performance characteristics to many polymer formulations. Major markets for the esters include surface coatings, textiles, adhesives and plastics. Polyacrylic acid or copolymers find applications in superabsorbents, detergents, dispersants, flocculants and thickeners. Superabsorbent polymers (SAPs) are used mainly in disposable nappies.
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