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Alkylation is the transfer of an alkyl group from one molecule to another. The alkyl group may be transferred as an alkyl carbocation, a free radical, a carbanion or a carbene (or their equivalents).

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.

In oil refining contexts, alkylation refers to a particular alkylation of isobutane with olefins. It is a major aspect of the upgrading of petroleum.

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.

Alkylating agents

Alkylating agents are classified according to their nucleophilic or electrophilic character.

Nucleophilic alkylating agents

Examples include the use of organometallic compounds such as Grignard (organomagnesium), organolithium, organocopper, and organosodium reagents. These compounds typically can add to an electron-deficient carbon atom such as at a carbonyl group. Nucleophilic alkylating agents can also displace halide substituents on a carbon atom. In the presence of catalysts, they also alkylate alkyl and aryl halides, as exemplified by Suzuki couplings.

Electrophilic alkylating agents

Electrophilic alkylating agents deliver the equivalent of an alkyl cation. Examples include the use of alkyl halides with a Lewis acid catalyst to alkylate aromatic substrates in Friedel-Crafts reactions. Alkyl halides can also react directly with amines to form C-N bonds; the same holds true for other nucleophiles such as alcohols, carboxylic acids, thiols, etc.

The electrophilic alkylating agents are commonly of concern as alkylating antineoplastic agent that attaches an alkyl group to DNA. The modify the information-encoding nucleic acids.

Radical alkylating agents

Carbene alkylating agents

Carbenes are extremely reactive and are known to attack even unactivated C-H bonds. Carbenes can be generated by elimination of a diazo group. A metal can form a carbene equivalent called a transition metal carbene complex.

In biology

Methylation is the most common type of alkylation, being associated with the transfer of a methyl group. Methylation in nature is typically effected by vitamin B12-derived enzymes, where the methyl group is carried by cobalt. In methanogenesis, coenzyme M is methylated by tetrahydromethanopterin.

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.

Oil refining

In a standard oil refinery process, isobutane is alkylated with low-molecular-weight alkenes (primarily a mixture of propylene and butylene) in the presence of a strong acid catalyst, either sulfuric acid or hydrofluoric acid. In an oil refinery it is referred to as a sulfuric acid alkylation unit (SAAU) or a hydrofluoric alkylation unit, (HFAU). However, oil refinery employees may simply refer to the unit as the Alkyl unit. The catalyst is able to protonate the alkenes (propylene, butylene) to produce reactive carbocations, which alkylate isobutane. The reaction is carried out at mild temperatures (0 and 30 °C) in a two-phase reaction. The phases separate spontaneously, so the acid phase is vigoriously mixed with the hydrocarbon phase to create sufficient contact surface.

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. 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 cracking processes, which 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.

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