What is Ether? - Definition, Uses, Effects & Formula

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  • 0:01 Historical Hospitals
  • 0:46 What is Ether?
  • 1:19 Chemical Properties of Ether
  • 1:42 Medical Uses of Ether
  • 2:38 Industrial Uses of Ether
  • 3:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: 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.

This lesson is on ether, a chemical used in medicine and industry. Here, we'll talk about what ether actually is and learn about its chemical properties. We'll also explore the historical and current uses for ether.

Historical Hospitals

Picture this. You're a doctor in a hospital in the 1840s, right when anesthesia is first being used. You're about to begin an operation, so you dip a rag in ether, a chemical used to put patients under for surgery. You put the rag to your patient's face and tell him to breathe deeply and count backwards from ten. As you're waiting for him to fall asleep, you set the glass jar of ether next to some sterilizing equipment. Suddenly, the vapors from the ether jar go up in flames. You and your attendants try to revive the patient, but it's no use. You carry him out of the hospital as the building goes up in flames. Although this may seem like a scene from a movie, this was real life for many physicians and patients during the mid 19th century. And, it was all because of ether.

What Is Ether?

So what exactly is ether ? Ether is an extremely flammable chemical and one of the first anesthetics. Technically, it's any compound where an oxygen atom is bound to two carbons, called alkyl groups, on either side, as shown here. We can use the letter 'R' to represent the alkyl groups in a diagram of the molecule.

There are many specific types of ether depending on what the 'R' group is. One of the most common ethers is diethyl ether, which is used as an anesthetic and a drug as mentioned earlier. Diethyl ether is shown here.

Chemical Properties of Ether

Ethers are generally colorless, sweet-smelling liquids at room temperature. They have a low boiling point compared to water. Due to the structure of the molecule, ether is extremely flammable, which is partially why it's no longer used in medicine today. To prevent any chemical reactions that might cause fire, ether is stored in a brown bottle, which does not let sunlight interact with the chemical.

Medical Uses of Ether

As mentioned previously, diethyl ether was one of the first anesthetics used in hospitals. Anesthetics make people go to sleep, or go unconscious during surgery. Prior to the discovery of ether, patients had surgery while awake, and surgeons mainly did amputations. The discovery of ether allowed physicians to develop more refined surgical techniques and better understand human physiology. Since then, however, ether has been replaced with less flammable, safer alternatives.

Since diethyl ether can be used as an anesthetic, it's also become appealing as a recreational drug to some, despite legal ramifications. Diethyl ether is a controlled substance and can be inhaled by users to induce euphoria, dissociation, and sedation. However, overdose of diethyl ether can lead to respiratory paralysis and death. Other symptoms include dizziness, vomiting, and respiratory damage.

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