Changes in the chemical or physical state of matter subjected to high pressure. The earliest high-pressure chemical process of commercial importance were the Haber synthesis of ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen and the synthesis of diamonds from graphite. Raising the pressure on a system may result in several kinds of change. It causes a gas or vapor to become a liquid, a liquid to become a solid, a solid to change from one molecular arrangement to another, and a gas to dissolve to a greater extent in a liquid or solid. These are physical changes. A chemical reaction under pressure may proceed in such a fashion that at equilibrium more of the product forms than at atmospheric pressure; it may also take place more rapidly under pressure; and it may proceed selectively, forming more of the desired product among multiple possible products.
Pressures higher than that of the atmosphere are expressed in bars and kilobars as well as in other units. A bar is 105 pascals, or 105 newtons per square meter, which are the units for pressure in the International System of units. These units are too small for convenient use in high-pressure processes, hence the bar is used. The bar equals 0.9869 standard atmosphere, 760 mmHg.
Increasing the pressure on a gas or vapor compresses it to a higher density and so to a smaller volume. If the pressure exceeds the vapor pressure, the vapor will condense to a liquid which occupies a still smaller volume. A vapor may be condensed at a higher temperature when it is under pressure; this permits the use of cooling water to remove the latent heat instead of more costly refrigeration.
Solids also change from a less dense phase to a more dense phase under the influence of increases in pressure. The density of diamond is about 1.6 times greater than that of graphite because of a change in the spatial arrangement of the carbon atoms. The temperatures and pressures used in the commercial synthesis of diamond range up to 5000°F (3000 K) and 100,000 atm. A molten metal is required as a catalyst to permit the atomic rearrangement to take place at economical rates of conversion. Metals such as tantalum, chromium, and iron form a film between graphite and diamond.
In a manner similar to its effect during a physical change in which the volume of a system decreases, pressure also favors a chemical change where the volume of the products is less than the volume of the reactants. This is Le Chatelier's principle, which applies to systems in equilibrium. This general principle may be derived more precisely by thermodynamic reasoning, and thermodynamics is used to predict the effect of pressure on physical and chemical changes which lead to an equilibrium state.
Ammonia is formed according to the reaction shown below.
Methanol is synthesized from hydrogen and carbon monoxide at 200 atm and 600°F (315°C) in a similar manner. The catalyst contains aluminum oxide, zinc oxide, chromium oxide, and copper. Higher alcohols are produced at pressures of 200–1000 atm and temperatures up to 1000°F (538°C) with a similar catalyst to which potassium carbonate or chromate has been added.
Polyethylene has been produced at pressures in the ranges 3–4, 20–30, 40–60, and 1000–3000 atm. The last is probably the highest pressure yet used in the commercial synthesis of an organic chemical product. The ethylene is polymerized in a stainless steel tubular reactor at 375°F (191°C) with small amounts of oxygen as a catalyst.
Phenol can be formed from chlorobenzene mixed with 18% sodium hydroxide solution at a pressure of 330 atm. Pressure is employed in this instance to maintain the mixture in the liquid phase at a temperature high enough for the hydrolysis reaction to proceed at an acceptable rate.
Hydrocracking and hydrodesulfurization in the refining of gasoline and fuel oils are carried out at pressures up to 200 atm and temperatures of 800°F (427°C) and higher.