Acetylene is a colorless, combustible gas with a distinctive odor. When acetylene is liquefied, compressed, heated, or mixed with air, it becomes highly explosive. As a result special precautions are required during its production and handling. The most common use of acetylene is as a raw material for the production of various organic chemicals including 1,4-butanediol, which is widely used in the preparation of polyurethane and polyester plastics. The second most common use is as the fuel component in oxy-acetylene welding and metal cutting. Some commercially useful acetylene compounds include acetylene black, which is used in certain dry-cell batteries, and acetylenic alcohols, which are used in the synthesis of vitamins.
Acetylene was discovered in 1836, when Edmund Davy was experimenting with potassium carbide. One of his chemical reactions produced a flammable gas, which is now known as acetylene. In 1859, Marcel Morren successfully generated acetylene when he used carbon electrodes to strike an electric arc in an atmosphere of hydrogen. The electric arc tore carbon atoms away from the electrodes and bonded them with hydrogen atoms to form acetylene molecules. He called this gas carbonized hydrogen.
By the late 1800s, a method had been developed for making acetylene by reacting calcium carbide with water. This generated a controlled flow of acetylene that could be combusted in air to produce a brilliant white light. Carbide lanterns were used by miners and carbide lamps were used for street illumination before the general availability of electric lights. In 1897, Georges Claude and A. Hess noted that acetylene gas could be safely stored by dissolving it in acetone. Nils Dalen used this new method in 1905 to develop long-burning, automated marine and railroad signal lights. In 1906, Dalen went on to develop an acetylene torch for welding and metal cutting.
In the 1920s, the German firm BASF developed a process for manufacturing acetylene from natural gas and petroleum-based hydrocarbons. The first plant went into operation in Germany in 1940. The technology came to the United States in the early 1950s and quickly became the primary method of producing acetylene.
Demand for acetylene grew as new processes were developed for converting it into useful plastics and chemicals. In the United States, demand peaked sometime between 1965 and 1970, then fell off sharply as new, lower-cost alternative conversion materials were discovered. Since the early 1980s, the demand for acetylene has grown slowly at a rate of about 2-4% per year.
In 1991, there were eight plants in the United States that produced acetylene. Together they produced a total of 352 million lb (160 million kg) of acetylene per year. Of this production, 66% was derived from natural gas and 15% from petroleum processing. Most acetylene from these two sources was used on or near the site where it was produced to make other organic chemicals. The remaining 19% came from calcium carbide. Some of the acetylene from this source was used to make organic chemicals, and the rest was used by regional industrial gas producers to fill pressurized cylinders for local welding and metal cutting customers.
In Western Europe, natural gas and petroleum were the principal sources of acetylene in 1991, while calcium carbide was the principal source in Eastern Europe and Japan.
Acetylene is a hydrocarbon consisting of two carbon atoms and two hydrogen atoms. Its chemical symbol is C 2 H 2 . For commercial purposes, acetylene can be made from several different raw materials depending on the process used.
The simplest process reacts calcium carbide with water to produce acetylene gas and a calcium carbonate slurry, called hydrated lime. The chemical reaction may be written as CaC 2 + 2 H 2 O → C 2 H 2 + Ca(OH) 2 .
Other processes use natural gas, which is mostly methane, or a petroleum-based hydrocarbon such as crude oil, naphtha, or bunker C oil as raw materials. Coal can also be used. These processes use high temperature to convert the raw materials into a wide variety of gases, including hydrogen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, acetylene, and others. The chemical reaction for converting methane into acetylene and hydrogen may be written 2 CH 4 → C 2 H 2 + 3 H 2 . The other gases are the products of combustion with oxygen. In order to separate the acetylene, it is dissolved in a solvent such as water, anhydrous ammonia, chilled methanol, or acetone, or several other solvents depending on the process.
There are two basic conversion processes used to make acetylene. One is a chemical reaction process, which occurs at normal temperatures. The other is a thermal cracking process, which occurs at extremely high temperatures.
Here are typical sequences of operations used to convert various raw materials into acetylene by each of the two basic processes.
Chemical reaction process
Acetylene may be generated by the chemical reaction between calcium carbide and water. This reaction produces a considerable amount of heat, which must be removed to prevent the acetylene gas from exploding. There are several variations of this process in which either calcium carbide is added to water or water is added to calcium carbide. Both of these variations are called wet processes because an excess amount of water is used to absorb the heat of the reaction. A third variation, called a dry process, uses only a limited amount of water, which then evaporates as it absorbs the heat. The first variation is most commonly used in the United States and is described below.
- Most high-capacity acetylene generators use a rotating screw conveyor to feed calcium carbide granules into the reaction chamber, which has been filled to a certain level with water. The granules measure about 0.08 in x 0.25 in (2 mm x 6 mm), which provides the right amount of exposed surfaces to allow a complete reaction. The feed rate is determined by the desired rate of gas flow and is controlled by a pressure switch in the chamber. If too much gas is being produced at one time, the pressure switch opens and cuts back the feed rate.
- To ensure a complete reaction, the solution of calcium carbide granules and water is constantly agitated by a set of rotating paddles inside the reaction chamber. This also prevents any granules from floating on the surface where they could over-heat and ignite the acetylene
- The acetylene gas bubbles to the surface and is drawn off under low pressure. As it leaves the reaction chamber, the gas is cooled by a spray of water. This water spray also adds water to the reaction chamber to keep the reaction going as new calcium carbide is added. After the gas is cooled, it passes through a flash arrester, which prevents any accidental ignition from equipment downstream of the chamber.
As the calcium carbide reacts with the water, it forms a slurry of
calcium carbonate, which sinks to the bottom of the chamber.
Periodically the reaction must be stopped to remove the built-up slurry.
Thermal cracking process
Acetylene may also be generated by raising the temperature of various hydrocarbons to the point where their atomic bonds break, or crack, in what is known as a thermal cracking process. After the hydrocarbon atoms break apart, they can be made to rebond to form different materials than the original raw materials. This process is widely used to convert oil or natural gas to a variety of chemicals.
There are several variations of this process depending on the raw materials used and the method for raising the temperature. Some cracking processes use an electric arc to heat the raw materials, while others use a combustion chamber that burns part of the hydrocarbons to provide a flame. Some acetylene is generated as a coproduct of the steam cracking process used to make ethylene. In the United States, the most common process uses a combustion chamber to heat and burn natural gas as described below.
- Natural gas, which is mostly methane, is heated to about 1,200° F (650° C). Preheating the gas will cause it to self-ignite once it reaches the burner and requires less oxygen for combustion.
- The heated gas passes through a narrow pipe, called a venturi, where oxygen is injected and mixed with the hot gas.
- The mixture of hot gas and oxygen passes through a diffuser, which slows its velocity to the desired speed. This is critical. If the velocity is too high, the incoming gas will blow out the flame in the burner. If the velocity is too low, the flame can flash back and ignite the gas before it reaches the burner.
- The gas mixture flows into the burner block, which contains more than 100 narrow channels. As the gas flows into each channel, it self-ignites and produces a flame which raises the gas temperature to about 2,730° F (1,500° C). A small amount of oxygen is added in the burner to stabilize the combustion.
- The burning gas flows into the reaction space just beyond the burner where the high temperature cause about one-third of the methane to be converted into acetylene, while most of the rest of the methane is burned. The entire combustion process takes only a few milliseconds.
The flaming gas is quickly quenched with water sprays at the point where
the conversion to acetylene is the greatest. The cooled gas contains a
large amount of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, with lesser
- The gas passes through a water scrubber, which removes much of the carbon soot. The gas then passes through a second scrubber where it is sprayed with a solvent known as N-methylpyrrolidinone which absorbs the acetylene, but not the other gases.
- The solvent is pumped into a separation tower where the acetylene is boiled out of the solvent and is drawn off at the top of the tower as a gas, while the solvent is drawn out of the bottom.
Storage and Handling
Because acetylene is highly explosive, it must be stored and handled with great care. When it is transported through pipelines, the pressure is kept very low and the length of the pipeline is very short. In most chemical production operations, the acetylene is transported only as far as an adjacent plant, or "over the fence" as they say in the chemical processing business.
When acetylene must be pressurized and stored for use in oxy-acetylene welding and metal cutting operations, special storage cylinders are used. The cylinders are filled with an absorbent material, like diatomaceous earth, and a small amount of acetone. The acetylene is pumped into the cylinders at a pressure of about 300 psi (2,070 kPa), where it is dissolved in the acetone. Once dissolved, it loses its explosive capability, making it safe to transport. When the cylinder valve is opened, the pressure drop causes some of the acetylene to vaporize into gas again and flow through the connecting hose to the welding or cutting torch.
Grade B acetylene may have a maximum of 2% impurities and is generally used for oxyacetylene welding and metal cutting. Acetylene produced by the chemical reaction process meets this standard. Grade A acetylene may have no more than 0.5% impurities and is generally used for chemical production processes. Acetylene produced by the thermal cracking process may meet this standard or may require further purification, depending on the specific process and raw materials.
The use of acetylene is expected to continue a gradual increase in the future as new applications are developed. One new application is the conversion of acetylene to ethylene for use in making a variety of polyethylene plastics. In the past, a small amount of acetylene had been generated and wasted as part of the steam cracking process used to make ethylene. A new catalyst developed by Phillips Petroleum allows most of this acetylene to be converted into ethylene for increased yields at a reduced overall cost.
Where to Learn More
Brady, George S., Henry R. Clauser, and John A. Vaccari. Materials Handbook, 14th edition. McGraw-Hill, 1997.
Kroschwitz, Jacqueline I. and Mary Howe-Grant, ed. Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology, 4th edition. John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1993.
Acetylene Pamphlet G-1. Compressed Gas Association, 1990.
Compressed Gas Association. http://www.cganet.com .
— Chris Cavette