Sulfonation is a valuable chemical reaction used to prepare a wide range of sulfonic acid derivatives and sulfonyl chlorides. There are many sulfonic acids that have the general formula RSO­3H, where R represents an organic substituent such as an alkyl or aryl group. Sulfonic acids are typically made by the reaction of a hydrocarbon with sulfuric acid or sulfuric acid/sulfur trioxide mixtures (oleum).

Before exploring the extreme flexibility of modern sulfonation and its value in modern industrial processes, it is worth looking back at the role sulfur compounds have played in engineering throughout human history.

The discovery of sulfur and its early application

Sulfur, or brimstone, is a non-metallic element occurring naturally in combined and free states at relatively high abundance across the globe. It was named for its extreme combustibility and was used thousands of years before the common era (BCE) as a bleaching agent, fumigant, and as incense for religious purposes. Throughout the classical era, sulfur was central to agriculture as a common insecticide, was used for medicinal purposes, and was a critical intermediary in early engineering materials like bitumen, rosin, and tar.

It was not until the 1700s and the birth of early chemistry that sulfur – and indeed sulfuric acid – was recognized as an extremely versatile mineral/mineral acid. The determination of sulfur as an element is attributed to French chemist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier who pioneered work into the analysis of compounds to better understand the composition of chemical elements. These efforts not only helped uncover greater uses for sulfur but revealed its exceptional reactivity and proclivity towards compounding with virtually any element.

Uses of sulfur today

Sulfur and sulfuric acid remain one of the key intermediary materials in modern industrial processing. The U.S. has been the world leader in production since the early 20th Century and consumes over 12 million tons of the mineral every single year, 90% of which is converted to sulfuric acid. Sulfur finds use in the production of various commodity, industrial, and pharmaceutical goods, including fungicides, insecticides, medicines, paper, rubber, and more.

Sulfonation with CABB

CABB Group is a global business built on a heritage of key leaders in chemical synthesis from across Europe and the US. One of our legacy companies, SF-Chem, ran a sulfur burning plant in Pratteln, Switzerland where chlorination and sulfonation reagents were produced on-site. With 100 years of competence in the safe handling of hazardous materials, they brought a unique level of expertise to our overall legacy of fine chemistry.

Our integrated production system in Pratteln enables highly sustainable sulfonation reactions with excellent selectivity and reactivity. If you would like to learn more, refer to our sulfonation services. Or contact a member of the CABB team today with any questions.


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