A Complete Guide to Ethanol

In our Complete Guide to Ethanol, we’ll explore what it is, how it’s made, its uses, hazards, and specifications. We’ll also look at why you really shouldn’t drink ethanol – in its purest form, at least. You’ll also find further information and reading material in the links at the bottom of this page, and of course you can buy ethanol from ReAgent, one of the UK’s leading ethanol suppliers.

What Is Ethanol?

Ethanol is also called ethyl alcohol, absolute ethanol, grain alcohol, drinking alcohol, and just plain alcohol. It is a compound, a simple alcohol, and has the chemical formula C2H6O. That means it’s made up of nine atoms: two carbon (C), six hydrogen (H), and one oxygen (O) atom.

While we may immediately connect ethanol with the alcohol we drink (and it is one of the main ingredients in alcohol, as we’ll see later), industrially-produced absolute ethanol is a colourless solvent with a strong odour and hazardous properties – it is both flammable and volatile. Not the sort of stuff you’d serve at a dinner party…

When ethanol is burned, it creates a smokeless blue flame which can’t always be seen with the naked eye, rendering it even more hazardous. Left exposed to the open air, it will evaporate (thank goodness this isn’t a property of the alcohol we drink).

How Is Ethanol Made?

Ethanol is made in one of two ways: by the natural biological process of fermentation, or through a petrochemical process.

Making Ethanol through Fermentation

A Complete Guide to Ethanol - ethanol is made through fermentation
Ethanol is made through the process of fermentation of different crops – wine is made by fermenting grapes

Fermentation is by far the most widely used way of making ethanol, with over 90% of the world’s production made this way. This is the method used to produce the ethanol that alcoholic drinks are made from, and to produce the bio-ethanol that’s used to make bio-fuels. It is also the more economical way to make ethanol.

Fermentation uses plants or crops such as corn, wheat, sugarcane, fruit, barley, and rice as its source. These crops are used because they contain sugar, and it’s the sugar that is the starting point for producing ethanol:

  • Firstly, the crops crushed to make them easier to process
  • The sugar (such as glucose or fructose) produced directly from the crushing process is dissolved, or if cellulose rather than sugar has been produced it is then heated to convert it into sugar, which is then dissolved. The leftover crushed crops are used for animal food or to produce bio-gas.
  • Yeast and bacteria feed on the sugar solution, and produce ethanol as well as carbon dioxide as a secondary by-product
  • This ethanol is then distilled, which results in higher concentrations

At this stage, additives can be added to ‘denature’ the ethanol, which means it isn’t fit for human consumption.

Making Ethanol from the Hydration of Ethene

A less widely used way of making ethanol is to create a chemical reaction between ethene and steam using petrochemical feedstocks through the phosphoric acid-catalysed hydration of ethylene. This production process adsorbs phosphoric acid onto a silica surface in a fixed bed reactor under high-pressure steam at a temperature of about 300°C.

A Complete Guide to Ethanol - ethanol is made via the hydration of ethene
Ethanol can also be made via the hydration of ethene

Making Ethanol from Carbon Dioxide

Even less widely used (and certainly not on a large scale) is making ethanol from carbon dioxide. In this process, which is done at room temperature and pressure, hydrogen is used to reduce carbon dioxide to produce ethanol. A cathode adsorbs molecules of carbon dioxide, but as only about half the current produces hydrogen, only small amounts of ethanol can be made using this method.

Uses of Ethanol

As we already know, ethanol is used to make alcoholic drinks, but it has many more uses both for consumers and in industry. In its capacity as a universal solvent – it dissolves many organic compounds, and mixes easily with water – ethanol is used in industries ranging from cosmetics and pharmaceuticals to domestic cleaning products, essential oils and paint.

Laboratory Uses of Ethanol

Ethanol of various grades – such as 95% ethanol, denatured alcohol, methylated spirits, and absolute ethanol – is commonly used in labs for scientific analytical work, disinfecting lab equipment, and in molecular biology.

A Complete Guide to Ethanol - ethanol is used in the laboratory
Ethanol has many uses in the lab

Ethanol’s Use in Medicine

Ethanol is a widely used antiseptic and disinfectant, killing cells by stripping them of water. In products such as medical wipes and hand sanitisers, ethanol helps prevent the spread of disease, viruses and bacteria. It’s used to sterilise the skin before an injection or operation, as well as to sterilise medical equipment. Ethanol can dissolve medication that can’t be dissolved by water, such as pain, cough and cold medication, making it easier to ingest.

Personal Care

Ethanol is used in a range of cosmetic, beauty, and hygiene products such as hairspray, perfume, mouthwash, and nail varnish. It has a variety of functions, acting as an astringent to clean the skin, as a preservative to prevent separation of ingredients in creams and lotions, and to help hairspray stick to hair.

A Complete Guide to Ethanol - ethanol is used in nail polish
Ethanol is widely used in the cosmetics industry

Ethanol in Engine Fuel

Ethanol’s primary global use is as engine fuel, and an additive to engine fuel. It reduces carbon monoxide emissions and other pollutants and helps get oxygen into the fuel which in turn keeps cars healthier for longer. In the past, ethanol has also been used as rocket fuel. During the Second World War, the Germans used it in their infamous V-2 rockets.

The Food Industry

Ethanol is also used as a food additive. In food colouring it is used to help maintain a consistent colour, and it enriches the flavour of food extracts such as vanilla. It has the E number E1510.

Ethanol’s Use in Alcoholic Drinks

And now we come to it. Ethanol is one of the oldest known forms of intoxication – think the Neolithic period – and it is still the primary ingredient in alcoholic drinks. Quickly absorbed, it can make you feel happy, chatty, carefree…but also careless, unable to walk and talk properly, imbalanced, and depressed. Not to mention what happens the following morning, or even more tragically when it makes you addicted.

Can You Drink Ethanol?

As we have just seen, the answer is yes – but that’s only the answer when it comes to legal alcoholic drinks, and even then they should be drunk in moderation.

A Complete Guide to Ethanol - ethanol is the main ingredient in alcoholic drinks
Ethanol is the main ingredient in alcoholic drinks

Ethanol in its pure form is certainly not fit for human consumption. You should never drink industrially produced absolute ethanol. As we’ll see in the next section, absolute ethanol is extremely hazardous. Drinking absolute ethanol may cause the same feelings of drunkenness such as headaches and vomiting, but it can also be lethal or cause you to go into a coma. It can also cause significant organ damage and there is a possibility that it’s a carcinogen.

Hazards Of Ethanol

Ethanol is a highly flammable liquid, and its vapour is also flammable.

Precautions to Take When Handling Ethanol

When handling ethanol safety precautions should be taken, such as wearing protective clothing and face protection, keeping away from heat, sparks and ignition sources (the flash point of pure ethanol is 13°C), and keeping container of ethanol closed. It’s also important to ensure there are eye baths and first aid kits close at hand.

If you’re using ethanol at home, make sure no one is exposed by only using small amounts at a time, using it in a well-ventilated area, and checking there is no potential ignition point around.

A Complete Guide to Ethanol - ethanol is hazardous so protective clothing is necessary
Wearing protective clothing is necessary when handling ethanol

What Happens When You Come into Contact with Ethanol

Symptoms of contact with ethanol depend on its concentration and the length of time you’re exposed to ethanol for. You should avoid contact with skin, eyes and clothes, including inhaling vapours which can cause coughing and tightness in the chest.

Ingesting ethanol can lead to nausea, headaches, dizziness, and intoxication, and skin or eye contact results in slight to chronic irritation.

Safe Storage of Ethanol

Ethanol is corrosive chemical and, in industry, should be kept in stainless steel containers. You should also have a secondary containment facility and ensure that containers are fire rated and impact-resistant. Any pipes leading to or from the containers should also be non-corrosive from ethanol. Ethanol should be stored above ground rather than below.

Disposal of Ethanol

Ethanol should be reused or recycled wherever possible, and disposed of according to local regulations from the Waste Disposal Authority. This generally means you should dispose of ethanol, along with the container, at a hazardous waste depot.

Ethanol Specification



Ethanol Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)

Download the Material Safety Data sheet for absolute ethanol for complete health and safety information on ethanol’s potential hazards, storage, handling, and what to do in case of an emergency in which ethanol is involved.

Where To Buy Ethanol

Businesses Buying Ethanol

If you are a business who would like to buy ethanol from an established, reputable chemical supplier, you can buy from us right here at ReAgent. The benefits?

  • Reliability – you’ll get the product you need when you need it
  • Free pre-purchase and after-sales support
  • We are experts in supplying ethanol
  • Quality accredited, including ISO 9001 and ISO 14000
  • Join our thousands of satisfied customers after more than 40 years in the chemical industry

We also make to order and can provide conformity and analysis certificates (additional charges may apply).

However, at ReAgent we don’t supply ethanol direct to consumers.


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