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Ethylene oxide - EO

Ethylene oxide is a colorless gas at 25 °C and is a mobile liquid at 0 °C – viscosity of liquid ethylene oxide at 0 °C is about 5.5 times lower than that of water. The gas has a characteristic sweet odor of ether, noticeable when its concentration in air exceeds 500 ppm. Ethylene oxide is readily soluble in water, ethanol, diethyl ether and many organic solvents. Ethylene oxide, also called oxirane, is the organic compound with the formula C2H4O. It is a cyclic ether. This means that it is composed of two alkyl groups attached to an oxygen atom in a cyclic shape (circular).

This colorless flammable gas with a faintly sweet odor is the simplest epoxide, a three-membered ring consisting of two carbon and one oxygen atom. Because of its special molecular structure, ethylene oxide easily participates in the addition reaction, opening its cycle, and thus easily polymerizes. Ethylene oxide is isomeric with acetaldehyde. Although it is a vital raw material with diverse applications, including the manufacture of products like polysorbate-20 and polyethylene glycol that are often more effective and less toxic than alternative materials, ethylene oxide itself is a very hazardous substance: at room temperature it is a flammable, carcinogenic, mutagenic, irritating, and anaesthetic gas with a misleadingly pleasant aroma.

Ethylene oxide was first reported in 1859 by the French chemist Charles-Adolphe Wurtz, who prepared it by treating 2-chloroethanol with potassium hydroxide: Cl–CH2CH2–OH + KOH → (CH2CH2)O + KCl + H2O. Wurtz measured the boiling point of ethylene oxide as 13.5 °C, slightly higher than the present value, and discovered the ability of ethylene oxide to react with acids and salts of metals.

In 1931, French chemist Theodore Lefort developed a method of direct oxidation of ethylene in the presence of silver catalyst. Since 1940, almost all industrial production of ethylene oxide has used this process. Sterilization by ethylene oxide for the preservation of spices was patented in 1938 by the American chemist Lloyd Hall. Ethylene oxide achieved industrial importance during World War I as a precursor to both the coolant ethylene glycol and the chemical weapon mustard gas.

Commercial production of ethylene oxide dates back to 1914 when BASF built the first factory which used the chlorohydrin process (reaction of ethylene chlorohydrin with calcium hydroxide). The chlorohydrin process was unattractive for several reasons, including low efficiency and loss of valuable chlorine into calcium chloride. More efficient direct oxidation of ethylene by air was invented by Lefort in 1931 and in 1937 Union Carbide opened the first plant using this process. It was further improved in 1958 by Shell Oil Co. by replacing air with oxygen and using elevated temperature of 200–300 °C and pressure (1–3 MPa). This more efficient routine accounted for about half of ethylene oxide production in the 1950s in the U.S., and after 1975 it completely replaced the previous methods.

Akzo Nobel, BASF, Clariant, Dow Chemical, Equistar Chemical, Huntsman, Ineos, LG Chem, Mitsubishi Chemical, Mitsui Chemical, Reliance Industries Ltd, Sasol, Shanghai Petrochemical and Shell are some of the leading producers of EO in the world. In India the total capacity of EO is projected to be 271 KTA while the demand is estimated at 198 KTA for 2016-17.

Ethylene oxide is important or critical to the production of detergents, thickeners, solvents, plastics, and various organic chemicals such as ethylene glycol, ethanolamines, simple and complex glycols, polyglycol ethers and other compounds. As a poison gas that leaves no residue on items it contacts, pure ethylene oxide is a disinfectant that is widely used in hospitals and the medical equipment industry to replace steam in the sterilization of heat-sensitive tools and equipment, such as disposable plastic syringes.

Other Uses - Ethylene oxide is used as a fumigant and disinfecting agent, as a mixture with carbon dioxide (8.5–80% of ethylene oxide), nitrogen or dichlorodifluoromethane (12% ethylene oxide). It is applied for gas-phase sterilization of medical equipment and instruments, packaging materials and clothing, surgical and scientific equipment; for processing of storage facilities (tobacco, packages of grain, sacks of rice, etc.), clothing, furs and valuable documents. Ethylene oxide is used as an accelerator of maturation of tobacco leaves and fungicide. Ethylene oxide is also used as a main component of thermobaric weapons (fuel-air explosives).

Ethylene Oxide Scientific Design Process:

In this process, compressed oxygen, ethylene and recycled gas are mixed and fed to a multi-tubular catalytic reactor.

Ethylene Glycol Scientific Design Process:

This method combines EO and makeup process water with recycled water in the feed tank and pumps the mix to the hydration reactor.

Capacity (kt) Actual Actual Actual Actual Actual Projected
2011-12 2012-13 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16 2016-17
RIL 148 153 169 188 203 206
India Glycol 55 55 65 65 65 65
Total 203 208 234 253 268 271
Source: Industry

EO: India Demand Supply
Actual Actual Actual Actual Actual Projected
2011-12 2012-13 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16 2016-17
Capacity 203 208 234 253 268 271
Production 167 172 190 192 194 198
Dom Sales 167 172 190 192 194 198
Consumption 167 172 190 192 194 198
  2.7% 10.9% 1.0% 1.0% 2.0%
Source: Industry

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