Airedale Chemical

Acetic Acid: What Is It & What Are Its Uses in the UK?

20th January 2021

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From cleaning windows to preserving Lenin’s body, acetic acid has well-earned its label as a multi-purpose chemical. In this feature of Product Focus we examine the versatility of acetic acid and the reasons why demand is set to soar through the roof in the next five years.

Acetic acid is a multi-purpose, clear liquid compound with a strong vinegar aroma.

Also often known as ethanoic acid, it has a range of applications in the household and across industry, from window cleaning to helping to preserve Lenin’s embalmed body.

As a leading distributor of acetic acid, let’s explore a little more about this versatile, dynamic chemical. 

What is acetic acid?

Acetic acid is a clear, colourless liquid organic compound with the chemical formula CH₃COOH. It has a very sour taste and pungent, vinegar-like smell. Its name comes from the Latin word acetum, which means vinegar.

As a major chemical commodity, acetic acid is available in a range of strengths — 40%, 60% and 80%. When acetic acid is completely pure and undiluted — 100% strength — it is sometimes known as glacial acetic acid. Glacial acetic acid, therefore, is completely anhydrous (free of water).

How is acetic acid made?

Acetic acid can be produced via natural bacterial fermentation. However, for industry, the majority of acetic acid is made synthetically by reacting methanol with carbon monoxide — a process known as carbonylation.

The fermentation route accounts for around a tenth of the global production of acetic acid. Because of food purity laws, the natural route still plays an important role for the production of vinegar.

What is acetic acid used for?

An adaptable, versatile and dynamic chemical, acetic acid has wide-ranging household and industrial applications, spanning cleaning, agriculture, food, photography, adhesives, paints and more.

It’s most often used as a building block to help create other chemical compounds — a reagent. Let’s touch on several of its many uses.

Vinyl acetate monomer for paints, adhesives and more

The biggest market sector for acetic acid is in the production of vinyl acetate monomer — VAM. According to recent estimates, VAM is responsible for a whopping 35.5% of the global acetic acid consumption. This is then used to create a range of products including paints and adhesives. 

To create VAM, acetic acid is reacted with oxygen and ethylene, along with a palladium catalyst. VAM is then most often polymerised to create polyvinyl acetate, a key ingredient in the adhesives, paints and coatings industries. VAM is also used to produce polyvinyl alcohol, used for water-soluble packaging.

In the food industry and for vinegar — of course!

Within the home, most of us will be familiar with acetic acid and have encountered it through tucking into our fish and chips — it is a main component of vinegar, which is 4–18% acetic acid. 

Acetic acid is also used widely in the food industry for acidity regulation and for pickling in higher concentrations. Did you know that acetic acid is also an E number, sometimes used as an additive?

An antimicrobial for cleaning, descaling and rust removal

As well as being present in kitchen cupboards up and down the country in the form of table vinegar, you might also find it in your bathroom or under the sink.

It’s very popular as a ‘green’, eco-conscious alternative in household cleaning products and detergents like floor cleaners, window cleaners and mold removers. Acetic acid-containing cleaning products and chemicals are also used widely across industry, particularly in agriculture.

It’s also renowned for its effectiveness in rust removal and descaling; the acid reacts with the limescale to form an easy-to-remove liquid layer.

In small dilutions (1%), the acid even has a medical role to play, known for its antiseptic, antimicrobial prowess. It has been noted to work effectively for wound cleaning to prevent infection.

Photography, eyeglasses, cards, clothes & packaging

Another useful chemical compound that acetic acid is used to create is cellulose acetate. This is a bioplastic used for photography film bases, glasses frames, coatings and even playing cards.

Acetic acid is also involved in the creation of purified terephthalic acid (PTA), which itself is used to make polyethylene terephthalate (PET plastic that is able to be recycled and reused). This is very common in packaging and the production of synthetic clothing fibres and plastic bottles.

Pesticides and herbicides

Acetic acid also has even been used in higher-than-normal concentrations in vinegar as a safer, non-cancerous alternative weed killer. The acetic acid content of the weed killer is the active ingredient that causes the cell membranes in the weed foliage to die.

As a preservative

As well as playing a role for food, acetic acid is a very useful general preservative, inhibiting the growth of bacteria and bacteria because of its low pH, acidic environment. Did you know that it’s even used for keeping Vladimir Lenin’s body embalmed in state?

The Soviet Union founder’s body is kept in a mummy-like state through being submerged and bathed in an acetic acid solution, as one of a number of treatments.

Acetic acid: global demand & production capacity over the coming years

With so many applications and end uses, it’s unsurprising that sales of acetic acid are set to continue soaring the coming years. 

According to forecasts, the global market for acetic acid is to grow from US$9.30 billion in 2020 to US$13.41 billion in 2027, with a compound annual growth rate of 5.2%. The region accounting for this biggest growth is Asia-Pacific, where demand for vinyl acetate monomer production is a key driving force.

In Europe, increasing demand for packaging in the food and beverage industry in particular has led to rising need for acetic acid — a trend that’s forecast to continue.

Demand for acetic acid has also increased for production in textiles, construction, automotive and pesticides. In particular, a preference for the use of more environmentally-friendly, bio-based chemicals has created new and exciting growth opportunities for the acetic acid market.

Production capacity of acetic acid has expanded rapidly over the course of the past ten years, mainly attributable to China. In the medium to long term, growth in new plants is expected to plateau, with increases in demand leading to bigger utilisation rates at existing production facilities.

Acetic acid and our environment

One of the major benefits to acetic acid is its environmental friendliness. As a biodegradable form of acid and an organic compound, acetic acid is less corrosive than inorganic acids.

Industry activity can cause acetic acid to be released into our natural environment. As it is broken down naturally by sunlight, levels of acetic acid in the natural environment are usually low.

Is acetic acid poisonous or harmful to us?

Did you know that humans actually naturally produce small amounts of acetic acid? It helps our bodies to process carbohydrates and fats. It’s also naturally present in some fruits, as well as a food additive.

Direct exposure to some solutions of acetic acid may cause adverse effects, depending on the duration, dose and manner of exposure — more information is available on the UK government’s acetic acid data sheet.

Airedale Chemical: chemical specialists with over 40 years’ experience

As an industry-leading manufacturer and supplier of general chemicals, we’ve got all of your needs covered.

We’re able to facilitate acetic acid orders of 25L, 200L and 1000L, as well as bulk acetic acid transfer, with strengths available including 40%, 60%, 80% and glacial. We’re also a leading distributor, with a dedicated fleet of vehicles covering the UK, Ireland and the EU. 

If you’re ready to enquire, don’t hesitate to get in touch by phoning 01535 637876, emailing enquiries@airedalechemical.co.uk or getting in touch through our contact page.

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