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Uses of Alcohols

This page has a brief look at some of the more important uses of the simple alcohols like methanol, ethanol and propan-2-ol.

Uses of ethanol


The "alcohol" in alcoholic drinks is simply ethanol.

Industrial Methylated Spirits (Meths)

Ethanol is usually sold as industrial methylated spirits which is ethanol with a small quantity of methanol added and possibly some colour. Methanol is poisonous, and so the industrial methylated spirits is unfit to drink. This avoids the high taxes which are levied on alcoholic drinks (certainly in the UK!).

As a Fuel

Ethanol burns to give carbon dioxide and water and can be used as a fuel in its own right, or in mixtures with petrol (gasoline). "Gasohol" is a petrol / ethanol mixture containing about 10 – 20% ethanol.

Because ethanol can be produced by fermentation, this is a useful way for countries without an oil industry to reduce imports of petrol.

CH_3CH_2OH + 3O_2 \longrightarrow 2CO_2 + 3 H_2O

As a Solvent

Ethanol is widely used as a solvent. It is relatively safe, and can be used to dissolve many organic compounds which are insoluble in water. It is used, for example, in many perfumes and cosmetics.

Uses of Methanol

As a Fuel

Methanol again burns to form carbon dioxide and water.

2CH_3OH + 3O_2 \longrightarrow 2CO_2 + 4H_2O

It can be used a a petrol additive to improve combustion, or work is currently being done on its use as a fuel in its own right.

As an Industrial Feedstock

Most methanol is used to make other things – for example, methanal (formaldehyde), ethanoic acid, and methyl esters of various acids. In most cases, these are in turn converted into further products.

Uses of Propan-2-ol

Propan-2-ol is widely used in an amazing number of different situations as a solvent. Details on this are probably not required by UK A-level syllabuses, but if you need them, an internet search on propan-2-ol solvent uses will give you more examples than you can cope with!