Stearic acid (first syllable pronounced either steer or stair) is the saturated fatty acid with an 18 carbon chain and has the IUPAC name octadecanoic acid. It is a waxy solid, and its chemical formula is CH3(CH2)16CO2H.
Its name comes from the Greek word στέαρ "stéatos", which means tallow. The salts and esters of stearic acid are called stearates. Stearic acid is noteworthy as the most common saturated fatty acid, another common one being the C16 compound palmitic acid.
It occurs in many animal and vegetable fats and oils, but it is more abundant in animal fat (up to 30%) than vegetable fat (typically <5%). The important exceptions are cocoa butter and shea butter where the stearic acid content (as a triglyceride) is 28–45%.
Stearic acid is prepared by treating these fats and oils with water at a high pressure and temperature (above 200 °C), leading to the hydrolysis of triglycerides. The resulting mixture is then distilled. Commercial stearic acid is often a mixture of stearic and palmitic acids, although purified stearic acid is available.
In terms of its biosynthesis, stearic acid is produced from carbohydrates via the fatty acid synthesis machinery via acetyl-CoA.
Generally applications of stearic acid exploit its bifunctional character, with a polar head group that can be attached to metal cations and a nonpolar chain that confers solubility in organic solvents. The combination leads to uses as a surfactant and softening agent. Stearic acid undergoes the typical reactions of saturated carboxylic acids, notably reduction to stearyl alcohol, and esterification with a range of alcohols.
Soaps, cosmetics, detergents
Stearic acid is mainly used in the production of detergents, soaps, and cosmetics such as shampoos and shaving cream products. Soaps are not made directly from stearic acid, but indirectly by saponification of triglycerides consisting of stearic acid esters. Esters of stearic acid with ethylene glycol, glycol stearate and glycol distearate, are used to produce a pearly effect in shampoos, soaps, and other cosmetic products. They are added to the product in molten form and allowed to crystallize under controlled conditions. Detergents are obtained from amides and quaternary alkylammonium derivatives of stearic acid.
Lubricants, softening and release agents
In view of the soft texture of the sodium salt, which is the main component of soap, other salts are also useful for their lubricating properties. Lithium stearate is an important component of grease. The stearate salts of zinc, calcium, cadmium, and lead are used to soften PVC. Stearic acid is used along with castor oil for preparing softeners in textile sizing. They are heated and mixed with caustic potash or caustic soda. Related salts are also commonly used as a release agents, e.g. in the production of automobile tires.
Being inexpensively available and chemically benign, stearic acid finds many niche applications. When making plaster castings from a plaster piece mold or waste mold and when making the mold from a shellacked clay original. In this use, powdered stearic acid is dissolved in water and the solution is brushed onto the surface to be parted after casting. This reacts with the calcium in the plaster to form a thin layer of calcium stearate which functions as a release agent. When reacted with zinc it forms zinc stearate which is used a lubricant for playing cards (fanning powder) to ensure a smooth motion when fanning. In compressed confections it is used as a lubricant to keep the tablet from sticking to the die. Fatty acids are classic components of candle-making. Stearic acid is used along with simple sugar or corn syrup as a hardener in candies. Stearic acid is used to produce dietary supplements. In fireworks, stearic acid is often used to coat metal powders such as aluminium and iron. This prevents oxidation, allowing compositions to be stored for a longer period of time. Stearic acid is a common lubricant during injection molding and pressing of ceramic powders. It is also used as a mold release for foam latex that is baked in stone molds.
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