Behind the Science: Microreactor for Scent and Drug Production

Behind the Science: Microreactor for Scent and Drug Production

Author: Barbara Boeck, Guangwen Chen

Dr. Barbara Boeck, Editor-in-Chief of Chemical Engineering & Technology, talks to Guangwen Chen, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Dalian, about his recent article in Chemical Engineering & Technology on a microreactor system for the preparation of ionones.

Ionones are important chemicals in both the perfume and pharmaceutical industries. β-Ionone, for example, is an important component of the smell of roses and is commonly used to synthesize vitamin A.

What was the inspiration behind this study?

The main research focus in our group is to develop microreaction technology to intensify various reactions, especially for fast and exothermic reactions. Microreactors can provide high mass and heat transfer rates, which makes them especially suitable for such reactions.

We have developed many processes based on microreactors, including nitration, sulfonation, and so on. For each process, the reactor has to be specifically designed and the fundamental mechanism has to be studied.

The present study originates from the fact that China produces surplus Litsea cubeba (may chang) oil. Citral,  a major component of this oil, can serve as a raw material in the synthesis of ionones. The purpose of our research was to find an efficient and safe way to produce ionones, since there is a large demand for ionones in China and the current technology has a limited efficiency.

Could you summarize your findings?

The focus of our investigation was to intensify the cyclization process of pseudoionone, catalyzed by sulfuric acid, with the aid of a microreactor. In our investigation, a high yield of ionones was achieved under optimized conditions.

Microreactors have been an object of research for a while now. What is it about your research that is particularly significant?

As a fast and highly exothermic reaction, the cyclization of pseudoionone is usually operated in stirred batch tanks with limited heat and mass transfer rates. It needs large amounts of coolant to keep a low reaction temperature. Due to the capability to provide high mass and heat transfer rates, improved process control, and overall equipment size reduction, microreactors can improve the cyclization reaction. Also, our research provides a valuable means to mediate and control the components in the reacting fluids.

What is the broader impact of this paper for the scientific community?

This paper provides important reference information concerning the cyclization of pseudoionone in microreactors, which should help the further development of this process towards industrial applications.

How long did this investigation take?

The investigation took five months.

Which part of your work proved the most challenging?

The construction of an appropriate microreactor to carry out the cyclization process was the most challenging part of our work.

How will you follow up on this research?

We will further investigate the synthesis of pseudoionone from citral and acetone and try to realize the continuous production of ionone from Litsea cubeba oil.


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