Ethanol and methanol sound similar and look the same, and they are both types of alcohol. But that’s really where the similarities end. There are some very important differences between ethanol and methanol and they have different properties, uses, and effects. Mistaking the two can have potentially very harmful consequences.
The main differences between ethanol and methanol are:
|Chemical formula||Contains the ethyl group in its carbon skeleton||Contains the methyl group in its carbon skeleton|
|Acidity||A weak acid compared to water||A strong acid compared to water|
|Properties||Is flammable, volatile, and has a a strong, distinctive smell. It gives off a bright blue flame when burned||Is flammable, volatile, and has a a strong, distinctive smell. It gives off a bright white flame when burned|
|Production||Ethanol is typically produced by the fermentation of food crops||Methanol is usually synthetically processed|
|Uses||The main ingredient in alcoholic beverages||Should not be consumed! Methanol is used to produce other chemicals such as formaldehyde|
Ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol, consists of two carbon atoms and has the formula CH3CH2OH. Methanol, also known as methyl alcohol, has just one carbon atom. Its chemical formula is CH3OH.
Properties of ethanol and methanol
The properties of the two chemicals are very similar. Ethanol is a clear, colourless liquid solvent which is both flammable and volatile and has a distinctive odour; when burned, it produces a smokeless blue flame which isn’t always visible in normal light, and it evaporates when in an open container.
Methanol, similarly, is volatile, colourless, flammable liquid with a distinctive smell similar to that of ethanol. The difference with ethanol is that when methanol is burned, the flame is bright white rather than bright blue.
Over 90% of the ethanol produced globally is made from the fermentation of crops, with the remainder produced by the hydration of ethene. Examples of the types of crops (also called feedstock) used are barley, rice, corn, and wheat. Any crop or plant containing large quantities of sugar like starch or cellulose can be used.
Methanol is usually made on an industrial scale by reforming natural gas with steam. The result is a synthesised mixture that is converted and distilled, creating methanol.
You can drink ethanol in legal alcoholic drinks (in moderation, of course), and as most of us know, it results in drunkenness, headaches, and nausea. Industrially-produced ethanol is hazardous and should never be drunk, as it can be lethal.
Likewise, methanol is also extremely hazardous. It should never be ingested, inhaled, or even come in contact with your skin. Even an extremely small dose can cause blindness and could be fatal.
Aside from being used as a key ingredient in alcoholic drinks, ethanol is also a universal solvent and is used in industries ranging from cosmetics and pharmaceuticals to domestic cleaning products, essential oils, and paint. It’s also used as a fuel additive in internal combustion engines.
Methanol is mainly used in organic synthesis, as a fuel additive like ethanol, as a solvent, and in antifreeze.
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