1. Discuss the influence of temperature, pressure, catalytic converter, and inert gas on the production of sulphuric acid by contact process.
The manufacture and uses of a chemical which is produced in vast quantities the world over.
One of the chemical industry’s most important products, this acid is also present in acid rain and makes your eyes water when chopping onions.
Sulfuric acid , also spelled Sulphuric acid, sometimes called Oil Of Vitriol, or Hydrogen Sulfate battery acid, is a dense, colorless, oily, corrosive liquid.
More sulfuric acid is produced than any other chemical because it has widely varied uses and plays some part in the production of nearly all manufactured goods. Sulfuric acid is prepared industrially by the reaction of water with sulfur trioxide, which in turn is made by chemical combination of sulfur dioxide and oxygen either by the contact process or the chamber process (Miles, 1925).
Contact process, just like any other process, this also involves other elements that affect the process, among these considerations are: proportions, temperature, pressure and catalyst on the composition of the equilibrium mixture, the rate of the reaction and the economics of the process.
Converting the sulphur trioxide into sulphuric acid
This can’t be done by simply adding water to the sulphur trioxide – the reaction is so uncontrollable that it creates a fog of sulphuric acid. Instead, the sulphur trioxide is first dissolved in concentrated sulphuric acid:
The product is known as fuming sulphuric acid or oleum.
This can then be reacted safely with water to produce concentrated sulphuric acid – twice as much as you originally used to make the fuming sulphuric acid (Clark, 2002).
Explaining the conditions
The proportions of sulphur dioxide and oxygen
The mixture of sulphur dioxide and oxygen going into the reactor is in equal proportions by volume.
Avogadro’s Law says that equal volumes of gases at the same temperature and pressure contain equal numbers of molecules. That means that the gases are going into the reactor in the ratio of 1 molecule of sulphur dioxide to 1 of oxygen.
That is an excess of oxygen relative to the proportions demanded by the equation.
According to Le Chatelier’s Principle, Increasing the concentration of oxygen in the mixture causes the position of equilibrium to shift towards the right. Since the oxygen comes from the air, this is a very cheap way of increasing the conversion of sulphur dioxide into sulphur trioxide.
Why not use an even higher proportion of oxygen? This is easy to see if you take an extreme case. Suppose you have a million molecules of oxygen to every molecule of sulphur dioxide.
The equilibrium is going to be tipped very strongly towards sulphur trioxide – virtually every molecule of sulphur dioxide will be converted into sulphur trioxide.
By increasing the proportion of oxygen you can increase the percentage of the sulphur dioxide converted, but at the same time decrease the total amount of sulphur trioxide made each day. The 1 : 1 mixture turns out to give you the best possible overall yield of sulphur trioxide(Clark, 2002).
You need to shift the position of the equilibrium as far as possible to the right in order to produce the maximum possible amount of sulphur trioxide in the equilibrium mixture.
The forward reaction (the production of sulphur trioxide) is exothermic.
According to Le Chatelier’s Principle, this will be favoured if you lower the temperature. The system will respond by moving the position of equilibrium to counteract this – in other words by producing more heat.
In order to get as much sulphur trioxide as possible in the equilibrium mixture, you need as low a temperature as possible.
The lower the temperature you use, the slower the reaction becomes. A manufacturer is trying to produce as much sulphur trioxide as possible per day. It makes no sense to try to achieve an equilibrium mixture which contains a very high proportion of sulphur trioxide if it takes several years for the reaction to reach that equilibrium.
You need the gases to reach equilibrium within the very short time that they will be in contact with the catalyst in the reactor.
Notice that there are 3 molecules on the left-hand side of the equation, but only 2 on the right.
According to Le Chatelier’s Principle, if you increase the pressure the system will respond by favouring the reaction which produces fewer molecules. That will cause the pressure to fall again(Rousseau & Fekder, 1999).
In order to get as much sulphur trioxide as possible in the equilibrium mixture, you need as high a pressure as possible. High pressures also increase the rate of the reaction. However, the reaction is done at pressures close to atmospheric pressure!
Even at these relatively low pressures, there is a 99.5% conversion of sulphur dioxide into sulphur trioxide. The very small improvement that you could achieve by increasing the pressure isn’t worth the expense of producing those high pressures (Clark, 2002).
The catalyst has no effect whatsoever on the position of the equilibrium. Adding a catalyst doesn’t produce any greater percentage of sulphur trioxide in the equilibrium mixture. Its only function is to speed up the reaction.
In the absence of a catalyst the reaction is so slow that virtually no reaction happens in any sensible time. The catalyst ensures that the reaction is fast enough for a dynamic equilibrium to be set up within the very short time that the gases are actually in the reactor (Rousseau & Fekder, 1999).
Clark, J. (2002) The Contact Process. Chemguide. Retrieved 1 February 2008 from http://www.chemguide.co.uk/physical/equilibria/contact.html
Miles, F. (1925). The Manufacture of sulphuric acid: (contact process) (The manufacture of acids and alkalis). New York: Gurney and Jackson.
Rosseau, R. & Felder, R. (1999). Elementary Principles of Chemical Processes. USA: Wiley.
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