Acetaldehyde (ethanal, CH3CH=O, melting point –123.5°C, boiling point: 20.1o C, density: 0.7780, flash point: –38o C, ignition temperature: 165o C) is a colorless, odorous liquid.

Acetaldehyde has a pungent, suffocating odor that is somewhat fruity and quite pleasant in dilute concentrations. Acetaldehyde is miscible in all proportions with water and most common organic solvents, e.g., acetone, benzene, ethyl alcohol, ether, gasoline, toluene, xylenes, turpentine, and acetic acid.

Because of its versatile chemical reactivity, acetaldehyde is widely used as a commencing material in organic syntheses, including the production of resins, dyestuffs, and explosives. It is also used as a reducing agent, preservative, and medium for silvering mirrors. In resin manufacture, paraldehyde [(CH3CHO)3] sometimes is preferred because of its higher boiling and flash points.

Acetaldehyde was first prepared by Scheele in 1774, by the action of manganese dioxide (MnO2) and sulfuric acid (H2SO4) on ethyl alcohol (ethanol, CH3CH2OH).

CH3CH2OH + [O] ? CH3CH=O + H2O

Commercially, passing alcohol vapors and preheated air over a silver catalyst at 480oC carries out the oxidation. With a multitubular reactor, conversions of 74 to 82 percent per pass can be obtained while generating steam to be used elsewhere in the process.

The formation of acetaldehyde by the addition of water to acetylene was observed by Kutscherow in 1881.


In this hydration process, high-purity acetylene under a pressure of 15 psi (103.4 kPa) is passed into a vertical reactor containing a mercury catalyst dissolved in 18 to 25% sulfuric acid at 70 to 90oC. Fresh catalyst is fed to the reactor periodically; the catalyst may be added in the mercurous (Hg+) form, but the catalytic species has been shown to be a mercuric ion complex. The excess acetylene sweeps out the dissolved acetaldehyde, which is condensed by water and refrigerated brine and then scrubbed with water; this crude acetaldehyde is purified by distillation; the unreacted acetylene is recycled. The catalytic mercuric ion is reduced to catalytically inactive mercurous sulfate (Hg2SO4) and metallic mercury. Sludge, consisting of reduced catalyst and tars, is drained from the reactor at intervals and resulfated. The rate of catalyst depletion can be reduced by adding ferric or other suitable ions to the reaction solution. These ions reoxidize the mercurous ion to the mercuric ion; consequently, the quantity of sludge that must be recovered is reduced.

In one variation of the process, acetylene is completely hydrated with water in a single operation at 68 to 73o C using the mercuric-iron salt catalyst. The acetaldehyde is partially removed by vacuum distillation and the mother liquor recycled to the reactor. The aldehyde vapors are cooled to about 35o C, compressed to 37 psi (253 kPa), and condensed. It is claimed that this combination of vacuum and pressure operations substantially reduces heating and refrigeration costs.

The commercial process of choice for acetaldehyde production is the direct oxidation of ethylene.

CH2=CH2 + [O] ? CH3CH=O

There are two variations for this commercial production route: the two-stage process and the one-stage process.

In the one-stage process (Fig. 1), ethylene, oxygen, and recycle gas are directed to a vertical reactor for contact with the catalyst solution under slight pressure. The water evaporated during the reaction absorbs the heat
evolved, and makeup water is fed as necessary to maintain the desired catalyst concentration. The gases are water scrubbed, and the resulting acetaldehyde solution is fed to a distillation column. The tail gas from the scrubber is recycled to the reactor. Inert materials are eliminated from the recycle gas in a bleed stream that flows to an auxiliary reactor for additional ethylene conversion.

In the two-stage process (Fig. 2), ethylene is almost completely oxidized by air to acetaldehyde in one pass in a tubular plug-flow reactor made of titanium. The reaction is conducted at 125 to 130o C and 150 psi (1.03 MPa) with the palladium and cupric chloride catalysts. Acetaldehyde produced in the first reactor is removed from the reaction loop by adiabatic flashing in a tower. The flash step also removes the heat of reaction. The catalyst solution is recycled from the flash-tower base to the second stage (or oxidation reactor), where the cuprous salt is oxidized to the cupric state with air. The high-pressure off-gas from the oxidation reactor, mostly nitrogen, is separated from the liquid catalyst solution and scrubbed to remove acetaldehyde before venting. A small portion of the catalyst stream is heated in the catalyst regenerator to destroy any undesirable copper oxalate. The flasher overhead is fed to a distillation system where water is removed for recycle to the reactor system and organic impurities, including chlorinated aldehydes, are separated from the purified acetaldehyde product. Synthesis techniques purported to reduce the quantity of chlorinated by-products generated have been patented.

Acetaldehyde was first used extensively during World War I as a starting material for making acetone (CH3COCH3) from acetic acid (CH3CO2H) and is currently an important intermediate in the production of acetic acid, acetic anhydride (CH3CO-O-OCCH3), ethyl acetate (CH3CO-OC2H5), peracetic acid (CH3CO-O-OH), and a variety of other chemicals such as pentaerythritol, chloral, glyoxal, alkylamines, and pyridines.

In aqueous solutions, acetaldehyde exists in equilibrium with the acetaldehyde hydrate [CH3CH(OH)2]. The enol form, vinyl alcohol (CH2=CHOH) exists in equilibrium with acetaldehyde to the extent of 0.003% (1 molecule in approximately 30,000) and can be acetylated with ketene (CH2=C=O) to form vinyl acetate (CH2 =CHOCOCH 3).

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