Ethers: Definition, Properties & Uses

Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

You may have heard about ethers being used in surgery long ago, but what else do you know about this organic compound? This lesson will examine the structure, properties and uses of ether.

Structure of Ether

What is a colorless, flammable, sweet-smelling liquid that was once used in surgeries as anesthesia? Ether! Although ether is no longer used as a numbing agent in surgeries, it still has many uses today. For example, ether is used in the manufacturing process of many fragrances or it may be used as starter fluid for engines.

We'll delve further into the uses of ether later, but let's take a moment now to look at the structure of ether. Like many molecules you might be familiar with, ether is classified as an organic compound, which means that it contains carbons atoms. Specifically, these carbon atoms are typically bonded together to form chains. The organic molecules often contain other atoms too, especially hydrogen.

Octane is an organic compound. Notice how it is made up of carbon and hydrogen atoms

But not all organic compounds are the same. They are classified based on their structure and properties, so let's take a moment to check out what makes an ether an ether. Any organic compound is considered an ether if it contains an ether group, which is an oxygen atom sandwiched in between two alkyl groups or two aryl groups. Whoa, what in the world is an alkyl and aryl group? Don't worry, I'm getting to that. An alkyl group is made up of carbon and hydrogen atoms that are found in specific numbers. You can determine if you have an alkyl group if you find that you have the following, where n is just however many carbons you have: Carbon n Hydrogen 2n+1. For example, if you look at the following image you can see there are five carbon atoms and 11 hydrogen atoms. If you look at the rule to be an alkyl-group, you can see that if you have five carbons, you would need 2(5) +1 hydrogen atoms (or 11). So this molecule is an alkyl group.

An example of an alkyl group

Next, let's look at the aryl group, which is a molecule that comes from an aromatic ring by removing one of the hydrogen atoms. Aromatics are a group of molecules that have specific properties, but that is another lesson.

Aryl group

So remember, an ether has an oxygen that is sandwiched in between an aryl group and/or an alkyl group. Oftentimes, the aryl groups and alkyl groups are represented by the letter R (as are other functional groups), just to keep things simple.

An ether group. Aryl and alkyl groups are represented by the letter R


Now that you know what an ether looks like, let's take a moment to discuss some properties ethers share. At room temperature most ethers are a colorless, sweet-smelling liquid. Compared to alcohols, ethers have low boiling points. This is because alcohol has hydrogen bonding, whereas ethers do not. However, boiling points can vary dramatically for different ethers. For example, a small ether called dimethyl ether has a boiling point of -25 degrees Celsius, whereas a larger ether called diethyl ether has a boiling point of 35 degrees Celsius.

Dimethyl ether (right) has a lower boiling point than diethyl ether (left)

Ethers are good organic solvents, meaning they can be used to dissolve other substances, which leads us into the uses for ethers.

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