Acetonitrile: Production, Hazards & Waste Disposal

Instructor: Korry Barnes

Korry has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and teaches college chemistry courses.

In this lesson, we will be taking an in-depth look at an organic compound called acetonitrile. Our focus will be on its production, its potential hazards, and proper disposal of it as waste.

Studies on Acetonitrile

Steven is an environmental science major at his local university and this week in one of his classes, his professor is going over some common organic solvents that he thinks his group of future environmental professionals will need to be familiar with. Organic solvents, solvents that are carbon-hydrogen based, play an important role in a lot of industrial applications, but like a lot of things they can be dangerous if not handled and disposed of correctly. Since Steven could potentially have to deal with them one day in his profession, his instructor is taking some time to study them.

Today, the subject of the class lecture is on an organic solvent known as acetonitrile. The primary points their professor is going to be talking about is the production of acetonitrile (how it's made), the potential health hazards associated with it, and finally how to properly dispose if it as chemical waste. Let's listen in and take part in their lecture!

Acetonitrile Production

Acetonitrile is a liquid, with the chemical formula CH3 CN. It contains the nitrile functional group, which simply means it contains a carbon-nitrogen triple bond. Since it only contains two carbon atoms, it's the simplest possible nitrile.

Structure of acetonitrile

In terms of production, what you may find most interesting is that acetonitrile actually isn't made intentionally most of the time, it's made as a by-product of another reaction! When industrial chemists are making acrylonitrile (used in the production of plastics and other polymers), the by-product of the chemical reaction is actually acetonitrile. This is very useful, because the chemists can make precursors for plastics, while at the same time make another useful compound they can sell for profit.

The acetonitrile business is a big market, with over 32 million pounds being produced by the United States in 1992 alone.

Hazards of Acetonitrile

As is the case for most organic solvents, acetonitrile is extremely flammable, and so when we are handling this material we should always ensure that no open flames are in close proximity. Although acetonitrile has only modest toxicity in small doses in humans, you should still limit your exposure. The problem with acetonitrile ingestion is that the body breaks it down into hydrogen cyanide, which is extremely poisonous even in small amounts.

The body's process for breaking down acetonitrile takes a long time, so usually symptoms of hydrogen cyanide poisoning aren't noticed until several hours after ingestion. Consequences could include vomiting, difficulty breathing, coma, and in serious cases even death. If you or someone you know is exposed to acetonitrile, the best course of action would be to seek immediate medical attention.

Waste Disposal of Acetonitrile

The last point of discussion for the class today is how to properly dispose of acetonitrile as waste. Let's say you're in an organic chemistry lab and after your experiment, you have 50 milliliters of acetonitrile left over that you didn't use, but it's contaminated so it can't go back in the original bottle for reuse. What do you do with it? Hopefully we can all agree that it certainly CANNOT be poured down the sink!

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