1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Acetic Acid

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ACETIC ACID (acidum aceticum), CH3•CO2H, one of the most important organic acids. It occurs naturally in the juice of many plants, and as the esters of n-hexyl and n-octyl alcohols in the seeds of Heracleum giganteum, and in the fruit of Heracleum sphondylium, but is generally obtained, on the large scale, from the oxidation of spoiled wines, or from the destructive distillation of wood. In the former process it is obtained in the form of a dilute aqueous solution, in which also the colouring matters of the wine, salts, &c., are dissolved; and this impure acetic acid is what we ordinarily term vinegar (q.v.). Acetic acid (in the form of vinegar) was known to the ancients, who obtained it by the oxidation of alcoholic liquors. Wood-vinegar was discovered in the middle ages. Towards the close of the 18th century, A. L. Lavoisier showed that air was necessary to the formation of vinegar from alcohol. In 1830 J. B. A. Dumas converted acetic acid into trichloracetic acid, and in 1842 L. H. F. Melsens reconverted this derivative into the original acetic acid by reduction with sodium amalgam. The synthesis of trichloracetic acid from its elements was accomplished in 1843 by H. Kolbe; this taken in conjunction with Melsens's observation provided the first synthesis of acetic acid. Anhydrous acetic acid—glacial acetic acid—is a leafy crystalline mass melting at 16.7º C., and possessing an exceedingly pungent smell. It boils at 118º, giving a vapour of abnormal specific gravity. It dissolves in water in all proportions with at first a contraction and afterwards an increase in volume. It is detected by heating with ordinary alcohol and sulphuric acid, which gives rise to acetic ester or ethyl acetate, recognized by its fragrant odour; or by heating with arsenious oxide, which forms the pungent and poisonous cacodyl oxide. It is a monobasic acid, forming one normal and two acid potassium salts, and basic salts with iron, aluminium, lead and copper. Ferrous and ferric acetates are used as mordants; normal lead acetate is known in commerce as sugar of lead (q.v.); basic copper acetates are known as verdigris (q.v.).

Pharmacology and Therapeutics.—Glacial acetic acid is occasionally used as a caustic for corns. The dilute acid, or vinegar, may be used to bathe the skin in fever, acting as a pleasant refrigerant. Acetic acid has no valuable properties for internal administration. Vinegar, however, which contains about 5% acetic acid, is frequently taken as a cure for obesity, but there is no warrant for this application. Its continued employment may, indeed, so injure the mucous membrane of the stomach as to interfere with digestion and so cause a morbid and dangerous reduction in weight.

The acetates constitute a valuable group of medicinal agents, the potassium salt being most frequently employed. After absorption into the blood, the acetates are oxidized to carbonates, and therefore are remote alkalies, and are administered whenever it is desired to increase the alkalinity of the blood or to reduce the acidity of the urine, without exerting the disturbing influence of alkanes upon the digestive tract. The citrates act in precisely similar fashion, and may be substituted. They are somewhat more pleasant but more expensive.