Alkylating agents are widely used in chemistry because the alkyl group is probably the most common group encountered in organic molecules. Many biological target molecules or their synthetic precursors comprise of an alkyl chain, with specific functional groups in a specific order. Selective alkylation, or adding parts to the chain with the desired functional groups, is used, especially if there is no commonly available biological precursor.
Electrophilic, soluble alkylating agents are often very toxic, due to their ability to alkylate DNA. They should be handled with proper PPE. This mechanism of toxicity is also responsible for the ability of some alkylating agents to perform as anti-cancer drugs in the form of alkylating antineoplastic agents, and also as chemical weapons such as mustard gas. Alkylated DNA either does not coil or uncoil properly, or cannot be processed by information-decoding enzymes. This results in cytotoxicity with the effects of inhibition the growth of the cell, initiation of programmed cell death or necrosis. However, mutations are also triggered, including carcinogenic mutations, explaining the higher incidence of cancer after exposure.
Electrophilic compounds may alkylate different nucleophiles in the body. The toxicity, carcinogenity, and paradoxically, cancer cell-killing abilities of different DNA alkylating agents are an example.
The product is called alkylate and is composed of a mixture of high-octane, branched-chain paraffinic hydrocarbons (mostly isopentane and isooctane). Alkylate is a premium gasoline blending stock because it has exceptional antiknock properties and is clean burning. Alkylate is also a key component of avgas. The octane number of the alkylate depends mainly upon the kind of olefins used and upon operating conditions. For example, isooctane results from combining butylene with isobutane and has an octane rating of 100 by definition. There are other products in the alkylate, so the octane rating will vary accordingly.
Most crude oils contain only 10 to 40 percent of their hydrocarbon constituents in the gasoline range, so refineries use a fluid catalytic cracking process to convert high molecular weight hydrocarbons into smaller and more volatile compounds. Polymerization converts small gaseous olefins into liquid gasoline-size hydrocarbons. Alkylation processes transform small olefin and iso-paraffin molecules into larger iso-paraffins with a high octane number.
Combining cracking, polymerization, and alkylation can result in a gasoline yield representing 70 percent of the starting crude oil. More advanced processes, such as cyclicization of paraffins and dehydrogenation of naphthenes to form aromatic hydrocarbons in a catalytic reformer, have also been developed to increase the octane rating of gasoline. Modern refinery operation can be shifted to produce almost any fuel type with specified performance criteria from a single crude feedstock.
In the entire range of refinery processes, alkylation is a very important process that enhances the yield of high-octane gasoline. However not all refineries have an alkylation plant. The oil and gas journal annual survey of worldwide refining capacities for January 2007 lists many countries with no alkylation plants at their refineries.
A primary factor in deciding to install alkylation is usually economics. Refinery alkylation units are complex and there is substantial economy of scale. In addition to a suitable quantity of feedstock, the price spread between the value of alkylate product and alternate feedstock disposition value must be large enough to justify the plant. Alternative outlets for refinery alklylation feedstocks include sales as LPG, blending of C4 streams directly into gasoline and feedstocks for chemical plants. Local market conditions vary widely between plants. Variation in the RVP specification for gasoline between countries and between seasons dramatically impacts the amount of butane streams that can be blended directly into gasoline. The transportation of specific types of LPG streams can be expensive so local disparities in economic conditions are often not fully mitigated by cross market movements of alkylation feedstocks.
Another factor in the decision to build an alkylation plant concerns the availability of a suitable catalyst. If sulfuric acid is used, significant volumes are needed. This requires access to a suitable plant for the supply of fresh acid and the disposition of spent acid. If a sulfuric acid plant must be constructed specifically to support an alkylation unit, this will have a significant impact on both the initial capital requirements and ongoing operating costs. The second main catalyst option is hydrofluoric acid. Consumption rates for HF acid in alkylation plants are much lower than for sulfuric acid. HF acid plants can process a wider range of feedstock mix with proplyenes and butylenes. HF plants also produce alklyate with better octane than sulfuric plants. However due to the hazardous nature of the material, HF acid is produced at very few locations and transportation must be managed rigorously.