What is Ethanol?

Ethanol (also known as ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol, TSDA or Ethos) is a clear, colourless liquid alcohol with a characteristic odour.  It is miscible with water and many organic solvents and has the formula CH3CH2OH.  Ethanol is best known as the alcohol that is consumed in alcoholic beverages all over the world.

Ethanol Chemical Structure

How is it produced?

Ethanol has been produced for thousands of years and is one of the oldest organic processes utilized by humankind with people throughout history appreciating its intoxicating properties.  Historically, it was produced via the fermentation of carbohydrates, and large volumes of ethanol are still produced by this fermentation of agricultural raw materials (biomass).  The raw materials can be starch and sugar based feed stocks, such as corn grain or sugar cane, or cellulosic feed stocks such as grass, wood, or crop residues.

Ethanol can also be produced by the acid-catalyzed hydration of ethylene, with phosphoric acid employed as the catalyst.

It is produced for use in a wide range of industries with demand increasing most rapidly in the fuel industry where government changes in legislation are requiring fuel manufacturers to increase the percentage of ethanol in their fuel.  The global production of ethanol is rising with approximately 52 million tonnes produced in 2008 alone.

How is Ethanol stored and distributed?

Ethanol is stored in storage tanks and/or stainless steel drums and can be transported by bulk vessels or tank trucks.  For transportation purposes, ethanol is classed as packing group II and hazard class 3 as it has a flash point of 14 °C (closed cup) and is highly flammable.  It should be kept in a cool, dry, well-ventilated area that is free from all fire hazards.  It has a specific gravity of 0.789.

Uses of Ethanol as a Solvent

Ethanol can be used in the pharmaceutical, cosmetics, solvents, food, and chemical industries with a majority of industrial ethanol used as a solvent in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals, paints, and lacquers.  It is also used as a carrier in medicines.  Some food extracts and flavorings can contain ethanol.  It is also used in the personal care industry in products such as hairspray, mouthwash and cologne and in hand sanitizers and medical wipes.  It is also used as a chemical intermediate in the manufacture of ethyl acetate, acetic acid, glycol ethers, and ethylamines.

However, the use of ethanol as a fuel now accounts for 80-90% of global consumption with production levels rising rapidly in the U.S and South Africa.  Brazil is another major consumer of ethanol as all Brazilian fuel must contain at least 24% ethanol.

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