Glycerin is a simple polyol compound that goes by many different aliases, including glycerine and glycerol. While these names are virtually interchangeable, glycerol is sometimes used to refer to the pure chemical product.
A colourless and odourless substance, glycerin is a sweet tasting and viscous liquid that is extremely water soluble. These characteristics give glycerin a wide range of uses across many industries, including cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and food products.
Uses of Glycerin
Glycerin is a non-toxic substance that is considered generally safe for human consumption. This is why it is the common ingredient in many medical suppositories and oral capsules. The viscosity and sweet-taste of glycerin are also utilised in things like cough syrup and toothpaste in order to make them smoother.
In the food industry, glycerin is widely used as a humectant, sweetener and preservative. Its hygroscopicity also makes glycerin an ideal humectant in cosmetics, where it is used in skin-softening products like moisturisers and soap products.
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Glycerol Production Methods
Glycerol can be produced in two ways: from fats and oils or by following a completely synthetic pathway.
From oils and fats
From a chemical point of view, triglycerides are esters of glycerol. When these undergo hydrolysis, free glycerol is produced. This is known as a saponification reaction and it is often used in the manufacture of soap. The same reaction is also used in the production of biodiesel by transesterification. As a result, the glycerol produced in this manner is often very crude and dark with a syrup-like consistency. This is usually a cheap by-product and is expensive to purify.
Synthetic glycerol is obtained from other pathways that typically use propylene instead of triglycerides. In this process, propylene is chlorinated to generate allyl chloride, which is subsequently oxidised in the presence of hypochlorite to produce dichlorohydrins. This is then reacted with a strong base resulting in epichlorohydrin, which is finally is hydrolysed to synthesise glycerol.