Ethanol: It isn’t just for your fuel tank!
The benefits of using ethanol as a biofuel are well documented, but other uses of this valuable compound often go overlooked. The fact of the matter is ethanol has a multitude of applications across a broad range of industries. According to the Industrial Ethanol Association, industrial applications of ethanol include:
- Healthcare and pharmaceuticals
- Cosmetics and toiletries
- Detergents and cleaning products
- Printing inks
- Paints and coatings
- Screenwash and de-icers for the automotive industry
- Biocides and other medical uses
- Production of important chemical intermediates, such as for polymers and plastics
Take the medical industry, for example. Hospitals and other healthcare facilities rely heavily on antiseptics and disinfectants for a variety of topical and hard-surface applications. In particular, they are an essential part of infection control practices. Put more simply, remember when you scraped your knee as a kid, and your parents would disinfect the wound with rubbing alcohol (of course you do – who could forget that stinging)? Rubbing alcohol is commonly made up of 60%-70% ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the healthcare setting, “alcohol” refers to two water-soluble chemical compounds – ethyl alcohol (ethanol) and isopropyl alcohol. In a Harvard Medical School article about sanitation, alcohol found in hand sanitizer is said to do a superb job of getting rid of bacteria and even some viruses. It states, “In all but a few trials, alcohol-based cleaners have reduced bacterial counts on hands better than plain soap, several kinds of antibacterial soap, and even iodine.” Alcohol’s superior killing power comes from its ability to change the shape of (denature) proteins crucial to the survival of bacteria and viruses, preventing them from causing infection. Indiana Public Media’s “Moment of Science” actually offers a great explanation of how ethanol denatures the bacteria cells, essentially shutting down their ability to make essential proteins.
Furthermore, a study from the Journal of Clinical Microbiology found that alcohol is often a sanitizer of choice as it’s more widely available, reliable, economical and convenient. Products such as iodine after all, although effective sanitizers, can often stain clothes, surfaces and even your skin.
Ethanol can also make a great solvent. Denatured ethanol – ethanol with additives that make it unfit for consumption – is often used as a carrier for perfume oils found in fragrances and colognes. Water is commonly used in conjunction with ethanol to help modify the fragrance intensity and to ease skin application. The concentration of ethanol in perfumes and colognes can vary but is typically near 80%.
Interestingly, perhaps one of the least known uses of ethanol is also one of the biggest crowd-pleasers. More commonly referred to as alcohol in this context, ethanol is a key ingredient in beer, wine and spirits. Humans have harnessed the power of fermentation for thousands of years to turn sugars and starches into ethanol for both medicinal and social uses. Most everyone is familiar with the effects of moderate consumption, but more and more studies are showing that beyond the obvious social benefits, there are real health benefits associated with the ethanol found in these popular beverages.
A common misconception is that one glass of red wine per day is the best way to get these benefits. In fact, studies have shown that it is the ethanol within the wine that promotes good cholesterol for a healthier heart – when consumed in moderation, of course. Given that all types of alcoholic beverages have ethanol, these benefits can be realized from wine, beer or liquor. Ethanol content varies from drink to drink, but in general, distilled spirits like rum, vodka, and whiskey tend to have the most – about 40% by volume. Wine is significantly lower at 12% on average, and beer is the lowest with an average of 5%.
Regardless of the industrial application, ethanol is a versatile compound that adds value to many aspects of our society. From fuel to healthcare to beverages, ethanol regularly enables new possibilities and experiences that enrich our lives.
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