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Different kinds of alcohol

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This week's question was asked by: a neighbor.

QUESTION: What is the difference between ethanol and methanol?

ANSWER: Methanol, or methyl alcohol, is made from natural gas or biomass. Methanol is a simple molecule with a chemical formula of CH3OH. Methanol acquired the nickname "wood alcohol" because large amounts of it came from distillation of forest wood.

Methanol is a colorless, light, volatile and flammable liquid. Methanol has been proposed as a future bio-fuel. The raw material would be a woody biomass. Methanol is more efficient than ethanol.

Ethanol is the alcohol that people drink. It is sometimes referred to as ethyl alcohol, pure alcohol, grain alcohol or spirits. Ethanol is produced from plant sugars through the fermentation process. Pure alcohol is rated as 200 proof in the United States. Ethanol is a more complex molecule compared to methanol. Its chemical notation is C2 H6 O.

Ethanol can also come from petroleum, but is not safe to drink because it usually contains a few percent of methanol. That five to ten percent can lead to blindness, coma or death for the imbiber.

Ethanol is used as a solvent and is employed in flavorings, medicines, colorings, and just for burning. It is miscible, meaning that it mixes with water. Ethanol is used as an antiseptic in medical sanitizers, gels and wipes. Because ethanol mixes with water it is an excellent solvent that is added to paints, perfumes, deodorants and markers.

Ethanol was used as a propellant by the Germans in their World War II V-2 rockets. The United Sates, using German technology, launched Explorer 1 into Earth orbit atop an ethanol-fueled Jupiter C rocket, a member of the Redstone rocket family.

Ethanol is used extensively as a fuel additive. Henry Ford's Model T could run on gasoline or ethanol. Most cars on U.S. roads can run on 10 percent ethanol. Some vehicles can use a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Those FFV (Flexible Fuel Vehicles) fuel up at the E85 pump at gas stations.

Denatured alcohol is ethanol to which additives have been mixed to discourage some fool from drinking it. The main additive is methanol, so you may see denatured alcohol sold as Methylated Alcohol. Ethanol for drinking is highly taxed, but alcohol with all those additives making it denatured alcohol, is unfit to drink and is not taxed.

Another common additive is acetone, which is fingernail polish remover. These additives make the alcohol taste bad, smell bad and cause a person to throw up. Some manufacturers add a dye to give it a color.

Denatured alcohol is used as a solvent and fuel for camp stoves. A jelled version is called Sterno.


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