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King Saud UniversityDr. Abdulrahman A. Al-Rabiah, professor in the King Saud University Chemical Engineering Department; and Dr. Abdulaziz A. Bagabas and Dr. Vagif Melik Akhmedov from the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) were granted a United States Patent on January 24, 2012 for a new process for the production of methyl isobutyl ketone (MIBK). This work has also been registered in Europe, Japan, and China.

The invention, titled the “Low Pressure One-step Gas-phase Process for Production of Methyl Isobutyl Ketone,” when developed, could significantly reduce capital and operating costs for petrochemical companies producing the industrial solvent.

MIBK is a very important industrial solvent, widely used for manufacturing paints, rubbers, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and machinery. It is also used as an anti-ozone agent in tires, as an extraction solvent for antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, and as an extraction agent in rare metals separation. Worldwide consumption is about 400,000 tonnes per year. (One tonne = 1,000 kg.)

MIBK is produced from acetone. The traditional commercial method of production is a three-stage process where the acetone is converted to diacetone alcohol, dehydrated, and then converted to MIBK as hydrogen is added in the presence of metal catalysts. This method requires several large separation and neutralization operations, has corrosion problems due to liquid acids used, and has high operating costs.

Three-stage operations are still in production, but newer MIBK production lines utilize a more cost-effective one-step liquid-phase process. In this method, acetone and hydrogen are passed over a metal catalyst at moderate temperatures and at high pressure, followed by three or four distillation columns to separate MIBK from other organic products.

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The one-step gas-phase process patented by Drs. Al-Rabiah, Akhmedov, and Bagabas has the potential to improve MIBK production even more than liquid-phase production lines. The process begins by mixing heated acetone and hydrogen at atmospheric pressure in the presence of selected nano-metal catalysts. This produces MIBK and other organic products, such as diisobutyl ketone and isopropyl alcohol. As in the liquid-phase process, several distillation columns are utilized to separate and purify the MIBK. Waste heat from the process is captured and used to heat the acetone and hydrogen, and recycled acetone and hydrogen are also blended into the feed stocks.

The one-step gas-phase process has the potential to lower capital costs compared to the liquid-phase process because it does not require expensive high-pressure reactors. Achieving favorable operating costs will depend upon obtaining acceptable acetone conversion rates when the process is scaled up to production size. The process can be found in the U.S. Patent Application Publication.

The researchers have also obtained a U.S. Patent for the selective nano-catalysts that were used in developing this process.

A Saudi production source for acetone has recently emerged, making it possible for an integrated Saudi MBIK process. Saudi Kayan Petrochemical Company, an affiliate of Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), shipped its first export production of acetone in January 2011. It was the first ever shipment of acetone from the Middle East.

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Dr. Abdulrahman A. Al-Rabiah has been Assistant Professor in the KSU Department of Chemical Engineering since 2001. He received a B.Sc. (Chem. Eng.) at KSU in 1990; a M.Sc. (Chem. Eng.) at the University of Colorado, Boulder USA in 1992; and a Ph.D. (Chem. Eng.) at the University of Boulder in 2001.

King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) traces its origins back to 1977. It is an independent scientific organization reporting directly to the Prime Minister. KACST is KSA’s national science agency, and provides science and technology policy making for the Kingdom, as well as data collection, funding of external research, and services such as the patent office. KACST also functions as the national laboratory.

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