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Microreactors produce explosive materials ten times faster

28 May 2012

The larger the reaction vessel, the quicker products can be made – or so you might think. Microreactors show just how wrong that assumption is; in fact, they can be used to produce explosive materials – nitroglycerine, for instance – around ten times faster than in conventional vessels, and much more safely as well. At the ACHEMA trade fair next month researchers will demonstrate microreactors for a very broad range of chemical processes.

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology ICT in Pfinztal have developed a method for safer production of nitroglycerine: a microreactor process, tailored to this specific reaction. What makes the process safer are the tiny quantities involved. If the quantities are smaller, less heat is generated. And because the surface is very expansive compared to the volume involved, the system is very easy to cool.

Another benefit: the tiny reactor produces the explosive material considerably faster than in agitating vessels. Unlike a large agitating vessel filled before the slow reaction proceeds, the microreactor works continuously: the base materials flow through tiny channels into the reaction chamber in 'assembly-line fashion'. There, they react with one another for several seconds before flowing through other channels into a second microreactor for processing – meaning purification. This is because the interim product still contains impurities that need to be removed for safety reasons.

Purification in the microreactor functions perfectly; the product meets pharmaceutical specifications and in a modified form can even be used in nitro capsules for patients with heart disease. “This marks the first use of microreactors in a process not only for synthesis of a material but also for its subsequent processing,“ observes Dr. Stefan Löbbecke, deputy division director at ICT. The microreactor process is already successfully in use in industry.

While microreactors suggest themselves for explosive materials, this is not the only conceivable application. Researchers at ICT build reactors for every chemical reaction conceivable – and each is tailored to the particular reaction involved. Just one of numerous other examples is a microreactor that produces polymers for organic light-emitting diodes.

ACHEMA takes place June 18-22 2012 in Frankfurt. See the microreactors in Hall 9.2, on stand D64.

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