Apparently, there’s a worldwide shortage of acetonitrile. As you might expect, there isn’t one precise cause for the shortage, although Hurricane Ike and the Beijing Olympics have been common scapegoats. Acetonitrile is most commonly made as a byproduct of the synthesis of acrylonitrile from propylene (the Sohio process). Acrylonitrile is a monomer for the production of polyacrylonitrile (duh) among other polymers. Hurricane Ike completely shut down a plant in Texas that makes acetonitrile using this method, and plants in China were affected by the ban on exports that took effect during the Beijing Olympics. The third front in this perfect storm was a slowdown in the plastics industry, which decreased production of acrylonitrile (and acetonitrile as a result). Prospects aren’t looking good before the end of 2008.
This doesn’t really affect me yet, but I imagine it’s pretty annoying for those groups that use MeCN as a chromatographic solvent. I’ve always found the ebb and flow of reagents in chemistry fascinating, because it forces new methods to develop as once common starting materials become scarce. Ideally, methods to replace the scarce starting material and new methods to generate products made from the scarce material are developed during a shortage. We’ll see if anyone rises to the challenge this time around…if not, there’s certainly no scarcity of scarcity in this world!