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What is Ethanol? - Formula, Structure & Uses

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  • 0:01 Ethanol's Formula & Structure
  • 1:00 Uses of Ethanol
  • 1:11 Alcoholic Beverages
  • 1:37 Hand Sanitizers & Wipes
  • 2:01 Various Solvents
  • 2:29 Fuel
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor
Nissa Garcia

Nissa has a masters degree in chemistry and has taught high school science and college level chemistry.

Expert Contributor
Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

Ethanol is a chemical compound that is present in a lot of things we use on a daily basis, ranging from perfumes to alcoholic beverages. In this lesson, we will learn more about the formula, structure, and uses of ethanol.

Ethanol: Formula and Structure

Did you know that the red fluid that rises in a thermometer is ethanol? Did you also know that the alcohol present in alcoholic beverages is ethanol?

Ethanol in Alcoholic Drinks and Thermometer
Ethanol Uses

Ethanol, also commonly referred to as ethyl alcohol, pure alcohol, grain alcohol, and drinking alcohol, is most known as the alcohol present in alcoholic beverages. Ethanol, which can also be abbreviated as EtOH, is a colorless liquid with a slight odor, and it is soluble in water. It is flammable and volatile, so it evaporates easily when left in an open container.

Ethanol's chemical formula is C2H6O. This chemical formula can also be written as CH3CH2OH or C2H5OH. It is made of nine atoms that include two carbon (C) atoms, six hydrogen (H) atoms, and one oxygen (O) atom.

Its chemical structure is illustrated in the following picture. Here, there is a methyl group (which is the CH3-), a methylene group (which is the -CH2-), and a hydroxyl group (which is the -OH) in the chemical structure.

Ethanol Structure and Chemical Formula
Ethanol Structure

Uses of Ethanol

Ethanol is such a simple chemical compound, but it has so many uses. It is used in antiseptics, household cleaning products, and even varnishes. In this section, we'll look at some of the many uses of ethanol.

Alcoholic Beverages

In adult social gatherings and parties, it will be highly likely that there will be alcoholic beverages. Ethanol is the alcohol that is found in our alcoholic beverages like beer, whiskey, and brandy. In alcoholic beverages, the ethanol is produced from the process of fermentation, which is the chemical breakdown of sugar by yeast.

There are times when we are served 'flaming beverages', much like the illustration below. This is due to the fact that ethanol, which is present in the drink, is flammable.

Ethanol in Alcoholic Beverages
Ethanol in Drinks

Hand Sanitizers and Medical Wipes

We often see hand sanitizer dispensers in public restrooms. During the flu season, we also tend to carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer in our bags. Ethanol is effective in killing organisms like bacteria, fungi, and viruses, so it is no surprise that another common use of ethanol is that it is an ingredient in hand sanitizer gels. It is also used in medical wipes and at clinics and hospitals.

Ethanol in Hand Sanitizer Gels
Hand sanitizer

Various Solvents

Do you ever wonder what the solvent is for products like perfumes, varnish, and paints? What these products have in common is that the solvent used is ethanol. Because it is easily mixed with water and many other organic compounds, ethanol makes an ideal solvent for these products. It is a common solvent in personal care products, like deodorants, hairsprays, and astringents. It is also found in food additives, like food coloring and flavoring. Paints, lacquers, and varnish also have ethanol as one of their components.

Ethanol as a Solvent

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Additional Activities

Ethanol in Everyday Life

In this activity, students are going to be creating a work of art that shows the uses of ethanol in everyday life. They can choose to create a painting, a collage, or a digital work of art in programs like Photoshop, Google Drawings or even Google Slides. Their artwork should portray at least three uses for ethanol, and include a caption explaining why they chose certain artistic elements and where the uses for ethanol can be seen. For example, a student might choose to paint or draw a picture of a young girl's room, with pretty pink walls, perfumes, and nail polish. The paint on the walls, the perfume, and the nail polish all use ethanol and they would explain this in their caption.

Directions

Ethanol might seem pretty scientific, but today we're going to add a creative spin. In this activity, you will be creating a work of art that shows at least three uses for ethanol. You can paint, draw, create a collage, or a digital work of art such as a creation in Photoshop or the Google suite. To get started, think about three different uses for ethanol you learned about in the lesson. Then, try to picture a scene where you would find those things together. After you create your work of art, make sure to include a 300-word description of where the uses of ethanol can be found and an explanation for your artistic choices. To make sure your art fits the requirements, check out the criteria for success below.

Criteria for Success

  • Art includes three different uses for ethanol
  • Art is attractive and professional
  • A 300-word caption is included that explains the uses for ethanol seen in the art and an explanation of the artistic choices used in the work

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