Molecule of the Day

Acetonitrile is essential to a lot of chemical analysis – HPLC, or high-performance liquid chromatography, is a workhorse technique for just about anyone who wants to purify on a smallish scale, or see how pure their stuff is. This means pharmaceuticals, prepared foods, agribusiness, fine chemicals, and on and on. We use lots of acetonitrile.


From a recent C&E News:

Acetonitrile is a coproduct of the process used to make acrylonitrile, a building block for acrylic fibers and acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) resins. An acrylonitrile plant yields 2 to 4 L of acetonitrile for every 100 L of acrylonitrile produced. Only one U.S. producer, Ineos, bothers to extract it for sale to the merchant market, which it does at plants in Green Lake, Texas, and Lima, Ohio. Most acrylonitrile producers incinerate the coproduct as fuel.

And it is acetonitrile’s status as a minor coproduct that has led to its present scarcity. Amin Dhalla, business director for Ineos Nitriles, says acrylonitrile production has been ebbing. Demand for ABS resins, used in cars, electronic housings, and small appliances, is slumping around the world because of the global economic slowdown. The acrylic fiber market is also on the decline, losing market share to polyester fibers. Operating rates at acrylonitrile plants are less than 60% globally.

So we find yet another bizzare unintended consequence of the current financial situation. (Slightly) oversimplified:

  1. Speculator buys house(s).
  2. Bank securitizes loan.
  3. Housing prices fall.
  4. Speculator loses shirt.
  5. Housing/CDO/CDS whirlwind.
  6. Carpet demand decreases.
  7. Acrylonitrile production falls.
  8. Acetonitrile production falls.
  9. It gets harder to purify and analyze chemicals, synthesize DNA, and perform loads of other chemical processes.

This is like the grocery store being out of milk, and being told that you might be able to get a half-gallon once in awhile until next summer, but don’t hold your breath. Below, find some information from chemical suppliers and gossip about the situation.


  1. #1 Abel Pharmboy
    December 4, 2008

    MoTD, thanks so much for this – I only just heard about this from some folks yesterday who were trying to buy some acetonitrile. I used to think of it as cheaper than methanol but it just goes to show how linked we chemists/biochemists are to world-production trends and economics outside of the lab.

  2. #2 Andrew Dodds
    December 5, 2008

    My first job out of Uni was QC for a very-high-purity solvents factory.. Acetonitrile was the single biggest product, methanol being next.

    We sometimes preferred to call it ‘Methyl Cyanide’, especially in the presence of temps who were brought in to do the bottling.

  3. #3 Alex Whiteside
    December 5, 2008

    I spent many an evening as an undergrad cleaning up spills of this stuff when I realised, on the bus home, that I’d set up an epic overnight HPLC run without first emptying the waste solvent tanks. You’d think I’d learn, but alas no. Between the ACN, MeOH, and the student drinking, I do wonder about the state of my liver these days.

  4. #4 scicurious
    December 5, 2008

    Wow, thanks for the headsup! I had no idea. I think I might be one of those awful people who stocks up on bread and milk at WalMart every time it looks like a hurricane, only this time, I will be making my lab manager stock up on acetonitrile…

  5. #5 ...tom...
    December 6, 2008

    Hmmm. Our special chemistry hospital lab uses significant volumes (for our total solvent usage) of MeCN. I have heard nothing about this ‘here now’ problem.

    Perhaps I should forward this post to the boss and the tech that handles ordering supplies.


  6. #6 karan saxena
    January 13, 2009

    Dear Friends
    Plz Suggest any Substitute for Acetonitrile in HPLC,UPLC

  7. #7 jasmine
    January 15, 2009

    Thanks for the news piece!

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