Fighting till the last drop… of acetonitrile

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The crisis has hit home. We knew for quite a while that acetonitrile was increasingly hard to come by, but today my old workgroup called an emergency meeting over the last bottle. My old group works with peptides and glycopeptides, and there, AcCN isn’t just another solvent, it’s the HPLC solvent.

Without it, columns will run dry, and within a few months, only dust devils will dance between the rotting corpses of lab workers. Or something like that. OK, seriously, I expect them to come up with another solvent combination. Probably methanol/water, although I always hated that one, and it is a lot less convenient.

So what’s the reason there’s no acetonitrile available? Acetonitrile is a by-product of acrylonitrile production, a major component in a number of important polymers, e.g. polyacrylonitrile. So as long as polymers are in high demand, acetonitrile is a cheap and abundant solvent. Which in turn makes it very attractive to cash-strapped chemists.

But then along came the summer Olympics in Beijing, and with it worries that the lousy air quality would kill athletes. So they essentially killed polymer production instead, and with it died a significant amount of acetonitrile output. Due to this temporary scarcity, stockpiles depleted considerably.

They would certainly have recovered by now, if it wasn’t for the huge economic slowdown that hit not long after. The crisis didn’t just prevent the market from returning to normal, it actually worsened the situation. According to this letter from Sigma-Aldrich (via In The Pipeline), major suppliers are rationing what’s left in their inventories and even refuse to supply new customers.

Hoew long the shortage will last, no one knows, but I don’t think the situation will improve soon. On the contrary, it appears that some companies think acetonitrile will be scarce well into 2010 or even 2011, depending on the global economy. And this isn’t all bad. Using less organic solvents is a good thing, environmentally and economically. There may be a chance hidden in the crisis.

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One Response to “Fighting till the last drop… of acetonitrile”

  1. David Eckensberger Says:

    A really important note for any chemist depending on purification of his stuff via HPLC! As i just left university, i had a nice look onto the increasing problem, starting with short discussions why this shortage occurred and how this problem should be tackled, finally leading to hectically ordered “recycling-instructions” from the work group leader to collect every bit of AcCN and re-distill it afterwards.
    Interestingly, most of the students (íncluding diploma and PhD) still are not aware of the scope this “crisis” can reach and go on as if nothing had happend. As i agree with Lars Fischer that the problem wouldn’t be solved soon, we all can be curious, what will happen next…
    Regarding the “hidden chance”, i only agree partly. Some guys already proposed to use some water/methanol/whatever mixtures instead, but even though these mixtures might have similar polarities there are some significant chemical differences (water and methanol are highly protic in the end compare to AcCN) that definitely limit such alternatives. I think that with an increasing demand for acetonitrile some companies will take the opportunity to earn money and will re-start the production of AcCN, but we surely can expect higher prices for the stuff.

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