What is Isopropyl Alcohol? - Uses, Structure & Formula

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  • 0:00 What is Isopropyl Alcohol?
  • 0:40 Formula and Structure
  • 1:43 Disinfectants and…
  • 3:12 Laboratory Uses
  • 4:00 Automotive Uses
  • 5:09 Lesson Summary
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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.

Did you know that the alcohol present in the rubbing alcohol that we find in the store is isopropyl alcohol? In this lesson, we will learn all about isopropyl alcohol and its various uses.

What is Isopropyl Alcohol?

Are you prone to getting minor cuts and wounds? If you are, then you must be no stranger to using rubbing alcohol. It is a must-have in our first aid kits, as well as in our medicine cabinets. Isopropyl alcohol is most popularly known as the alcohol that is used in rubbing alcohol. Aside from this, isopropyl alcohol has other uses, which we will discuss later on.

Isopropyl alcohol, also referred to as isopropanol, is a colorless and flammable liquid, and if you have smelled rubbing alcohol, then you know how isopropyl alcohol smells. It is also a volatile liquid, so when its container is left open, it evaporates quickly.

Isopropyl alcohol: The alcohol in rubbing alcohol
rubbing alcohol

Formula and Structure

Let's talk about the chemical formula of isopropyl alcohol. The chemical formula of isopropyl alcohol is C3H8O, so there are three carbon (C) atoms, eight hydrogen (H) atoms and one oxygen (O) atom. The chemical formula of isopropyl alcohol can be written different ways. Any way you write it, there are still the same number of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

Different ways to write the chemical formula of isopropyl alcohol
chemical formula of isopropyl alcohol

Now let's talk about the chemical structure of isopropyl alcohol. The following illustration, on the left, shows how the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms are bonded together. The three carbon atoms of isopropyl alcohol are bonded together in a three-carbon chain. The two carbon atoms at each end have three hydrogen atoms bonded to them, and the carbon atom in the middle has one hydrogen atom bonded to it and one hydroxyl (OH) group bonded to it. The illustration featured below on the right is another way to draw the structure of isopropyl alcohol: here, the three carbon atoms are on each corner of the chain and the hydrogen atoms, while not shown here, are on the carbon atoms on each corner.

Chemical structure of isopropyl alcohol
chemical structure

Disinfectants and Cleaning Solutions

Isopropyl alcohol is a very commonly used substance - we use it more often than we are aware of everyday. It is used for various purposes at home, as well as for different industrial processes and pharmaceutical applications.

Germs and harmful bacteria that can lead to sickness and infection are most definitely a problem. The good thing is, isopropyl alcohol is a disinfectant, so it kills these pesky germs and harmful bacteria. There are various products used in hospitals and our own homes that make use of isopropyl alcohol. Besides in rubbing alcohol, isopropyl alcohol is present in alcohol swabs, alcohol pads and hand sanitizer that can disinfect minor cuts and wounds so we can avoid infection.

Isopropyl alcohol: a disinfectant
Isopropyl Alcohol: A disinfectant

Sometimes, water just doesn't do it. While water is the universal solvent, there are some things that water just cannot dissolve. Isopropyl alcohol, unlike water, can dissolve many non-polar compounds, such as chloroform and some oils.

Here is an example of when isopropyl alcohol is a better solvent than water:

Did you ever have to clean a dry erase board? Have you made the mistake of using water? If you have, you may have noticed that using water usually leaves streaks. What about cleaning your computer screen with just water? Water is not as effective at taking the accumulated grime off the screen. For both dry erase boards and computer screens, isopropyl alcohol works like a charm.

Isopropyl alcohol can clean some surfaces better than water.
Isopropyl alcohol can clean some surfaces better than water

Laboratory Uses

I remember back in biology class when we had to preserve the frog that we had dissected by immersing it in a jar full of formaldehyde. There is actually an alternative to using formaldehyde, and this is isopropyl alcohol, which may be sometimes used because it is not as toxic as formaldehyde.

Another use of isopropyl alcohol in the laboratory is for DNA extraction: isopropyl alcohol cannot dissolve DNA, so it can be used to extract it. Here, isopropyl alcohol is added to the DNA solution to isolate or separate the DNA from the rest of the solution.

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