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What Is Furfural?

Heavy exposure to furfural may cause numb tongue.
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  • Written By: K.C. Bruning
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 30 August 2014
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Furfural is a chemical made out of organic matter which is typically produced for industrial purposes. It is primarily composed of agricultural byproducts such as oat husks, bran, corncobs, and sawdust. Some of the products it is used in include weed killer, fungicide, and solvent. It is also a familiar element in the production of transportation fuels and in the process of refining lubricating oils. The chemical is an element in the production of several other industrial agents as well.

When mass-produced, the chemical is made by putting pentosan polysaccharides through the process of acid hydrolysis, meaning that the cellulose and starches of the base material are converted to sugar using acid. In an airtight container, furfural is viscous, colorless, and oily, and has an almond-like scent. Exposure to air can color the liquid in shades from yellow to brown.

Furfural is somewhat water soluble and completely soluble in ether and ethanol. In addition to its uses as a solitary chemical, it is used in the production of chemicals such as furan, furfuyl, nitrofurans, and methylfuran. These chemicals are also used in the further manufacture of products, including agricultural chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and stabilizers.

There are several ways that humans come into contact with furfural. In addition to exposure to the chemical during processing, it can be found naturally in several kinds of food. Light exposure of this nature has not been proven to be harmful.

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Heavy exposure to furfural can be toxic. In laboratory tests on humans and animals, furfural was found to be an irritant of the skin, mucous membranes, and eyes. It has also reportedly caused discomfort of the throat and respiratory tract. Some reported short-term effects of exposure to the chemical in areas with poor ventilation include breathing difficulties, a numb tongue, and an inability to taste. Possible long term effects of this kind of exposure can range from conditions of the skin such as eczema and photosensitization to vision problems and pulmonary edema.

Furfural first came into widespread use in 1922 when the Quaker Oats Company began to produce it with oat hulls. Oats continue to be one of the most popular ways to make the chemical. Before then, it was only regularly used in some brands of perfume. It was first developed in 1832 by Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner, a German chemist who was using ant carcasses to create formic acid, of which the furfural was a by-product. The ants are believed to have been effective in creating the chemical because their bodies contained the kind of plant matter currently used for processing.

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