Custom Processing Services Blog

Process Chemistry: Hydrogenation in Food & Pharma Applications

Jen Lepore, May 21, 2024 8:15:00 AM

A chemist in a lab.

Hydrogenation has origins as far back as 1901, when it’s believed the first patent was issued for the process. Food scientists of the day found the hydrogenation process useful in converting whale oil into a semi-solid fat for use in margarine. 

Fast forward a century and the same method is used to change chemical properties of vegetable oils to create shortening and margarine. These products are widely available on grocery store shelves, and they are typically a stabilizing ingredient in ultra-processed foods such as packaged snacks.

The pharmaceutical industry also took notice of hydrogenation. Just as it was in the early 20th century, the process remains central to drug synthesis. Process chemistry — the ability to selectively control the chemical reactions of organic compounds — changes their atomic structure. As a result, pharmaceutical chemists can manipulate the potency and efficacy of certain medications.

The hydrogenation process is both necessary and valued in food and pharma applications. Its execution is also extremely complex, requiring the expertise and equipment of proven toll processing partners such as CPS.

What is Hydrogenation?

The practicalities of hydrogenation in the food and pharma industries is well known. What’s less understood is the basics of hydrogenation. 

Without getting into sophisticated molecular science, hydrogenation can be defined as the process chemistry method whereby hydrogen gas is added to organic molecules of matter (e.g., vegetable oil or active pharmaceutical ingredients). Essentially, hydrogen atoms attach to specific bonds within organic molecules to change their structure from double or triple bonds (unsaturated) to single bonds (saturated). Molecules are hydrogenated upon saturation.

However, the chemical reaction can’t happen without the aid of a catalyst. Transition metals such as nickel, palladium, or platinum are commonly used as catalysts. Why? Their surfaces interact well with the transitioning molecules and speed up chemical reactions but the metals aren’t consumed in the hydrogenation process.

Heat, too, is required. Hydrogenation typically occurs when molecules, catalysts, and hydrogen are heated to approximately 400℉ (depending on the substance) and mechanically agitated at pressures of 60psi (again, depending on the substance). Non-catalytic hydrogenation is also possible, but only at extremely high temperatures.

The Two Types of Hydrogenation

Hydrogenation can be either full (sometimes “complete”) or partial. Which method is chosen depends on the desired results for the end product, such as a certain consistency, texture, and shelf life in the case of processed foods.

  • Full hydrogenation uses hydrogen gas to break down every molecular double or triple bond into single bonds. The molecules are fully saturated, meaning no other chemical reaction such as oxidation can take place which increases stability and solidity, which is important in pharma formulations — especially those that influence potency, such as converting codeine to hydrocodone 
  • Partial hydrogenation uses hydrogen to convert only some molecular double or triple bonds into single bonds. The mix of bonds results in semi-solid substances, which may be desirable — such as converting liquid vegetable oils to shortening or margarine

Process Chemistry and Toll Processing — a Beneficial Combination

Like any process chemistry, hydrogenation requires specialized equipment as well as specialized knowledge. Many manufacturers opt out of making investments to support the process in-house, be it equipment, trained chemists and technicians, or both.

That’s where the technical expertise and equipment accessibility of a proven toll processor fills the gap. 

CPS Technical Expertise

As the architects of what’s possible, CPS engineers lean into finding and optimizing process-driven solutions. Exploring hydrogenation opportunities doesn’t only happen as the need arises. Our experienced team has depth of knowledge and the desire to remain on the cutting edge of technical proficiencies, including process chemistry optimization. It’s part of the CPS promise of working with our customers from concept through commercialization.

CPS Equipment and Technologies

CPS is a well-established toll processing company. We’ve built an impressive array of in-house equipment and technological know-how over decades of helping customers achieve particle size goals and build processes for key needs such as hydrogenation. CPS is able to handle high volumes, adhere to strict deadlines, and deliver top-quality results — without committing our customers to substantial capital investments.

Hydrogenation — or any advanced process chemistry — can raise questions about how to best accomplish ingredient and product goals for food, pharma, and other industries. Weighing third party or in-house production options can be insightful and sometimes difficult. Comparing the Benefits of Toll Processing and In-House Manufacturing is an easy-reference guide for answering questions, evaluating benefits, and more. Click below to download your copy.

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Posted in:Toll ProcessingPharmaceutical