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Propionic acid (from the Greek words protos, meaning "first", and pion, meaning "fat"; also known as propanoic acid) is a naturally occurring carboxylic acid with chemical formula CH3CH2CO2H. It is a liquid with a pungent and unpleasant smell somewhat resembling body odor. The anionCH3CH2CO2 as well as the salts and esters of propionic acid are known as propionates or propanoates.
Propionic acid inhibits the growth of mold and some bacteria at the levels between 0.1 and 1% by weight. As a result, most propionic acid produced is consumed as a preservative for both animal feed and food for human consumption. For animal feed, it is used either directly or as its ammoniumsalt. The antibiotic Monensin is added to cattle feed to favor propionibacteria over acetic acid producers in the rumen; this produces less carbon dioxide and feed conversion is better. This application accounts for about half of the world production of propionic acid. Another major application is as a preservative in baked goods, which use the sodium and calcium salts.
Propionic acid is also useful as an intermediate in the production of other chemicals, especially polymers.Cellulose-acetate-propionate is a useful thermoplastic. Vinyl propionate is also used. In more specialized applications, it is also used to make pesticides and pharmaceuticals. The esters of propionic acid have fruit-like odors and are sometimes used as solvents or artificial flavorings.
In biogas plants, propionic acid is a common intermediate product, which is formed by fermentation with propionic acid bacteria. Its degradation in anaerobic environments (e.g. biogas plants) requires the activity of complex microbial communities.