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Ethanol - an important resource with various uses

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Ethanol - an important resource with various uses

Ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol, is a colourless, flammable and volatile liquid derived from renewable resources such as corn, sugarcane, wheat and other agricultural products. Ethanol has been used by people for thousands of years, for both its medicinal properties and as an ingredient in alcoholic drinks. Today, it has a wide range of uses across many industries, including the food & beverage, automotive and pharmaceutical sectors. But what exactly is it used for? And why is it such a valued product?

What is ethanol?

Before we discuss the uses of ethanol, it is important to know what ethanol exactly is. Ethanol is an organic chemical compound with the formula C2H6O, which can also be written as CH3-CH2-OH or C2H5OH. The compound is also known as ethyl alcohol. The main difference between the terms ethanol and ethyl alcohol is the context in which they are used. Besides that, the product is known as drinking alcohol, grain alcohol, or simply alcohol. But whatever you call it, it is a colourless, flammable and volatile liquid with an odour reminiscent of wine. Ethanol can be produced by naturally fermenting sugars in grains, sugar beets and sugar cane, but also through chemical processing.

Ethyl alcohol in the food industry

Ethyl alcohol is the only alcohol that is fit for human consumption – as long as no denaturants are added. It has been a primary ingredient in alcoholic beverages since prehistoric times. Beer, wine, and spirits are made by fermenting grains, fruits or vegetables with yeast, which converts the natural sugars into alcohol. How much alcohol a beverage contains depends on the specific drink, which can vary in alcoholic strength from low-alcohol beer to high-proof spirits.

The food & beverage industry also uses ethanol as a solvent for colourants and flavourings, as well as to create extracts. Ethanol is a common ingredient in vanilla extract, for example, which is used in many deserts, cakes and other baked goods.

If you want to know more about processing alcohol in food or beverages, read more on our foodgrade alcohol page.

More about foodgrade alcohol

Uses of ethyl alcohol in cosmetics and personal care products

Ethanol is commonly used in a range of personal care products. It has antiseptic properties that can kill bacteria and viruses, making it a key ingredient in hand sanitizers, disinfectants, cleaning supplies, and mouthwashes to kill bacteria.

Ethanol is also used as a solvent in perfumes and fragrances, where it helps to dissolve the essential oils and other aromatic compounds. In the cosmetics industry, ethanol dissolutes products such as lotions, hairsprays, and nail polishes.

Want to know more about the uses of alcohol for cosmetics? Head over to our cosmetics alcohol page.

Ethanol's uses in healthcare

The same antiseptic properties of ethanol are the reason that it is also used as a disinfectant in hospitals and other healthcare facilities, where killing bacteria and viruses on surfaces and equipment is key to maintaining a safe environment for vulnerable patients.

Ethanol in pharmaceuticals

Ethanol is an important ingredient in many pharmaceutical products, including medicines, vaccines and disinfectants. It has two key roles in the pharmaceutical industry: as a solvent and as a preservative. As a solvent, ethanol diffuses active pharmaceutical ingredients, making them easier to administer and more effective. It serves as a preservative in vaccines and other injectable medications, where it helps to prevent contamination by bacteria and other microorganisms.

Interested in using ethanol for pharmaceutical purposes?

More about pharmaceutical alcohol

Uses of ethanol in industrial production

The versatility of ethanol is nowhere more evident than in its many applications in industry. No matter if as a solvent in the production of paints, coatings, and inks or key ingredient in the production of chemicals such as ethylene, acetic acid, and ethyl acetate, ethanol can be found anywhere.

Ethanol is also used as a cleaning agent, as it is an extremely effective solvent for removing oils, grease and other contaminants from surfaces and equipment. For this reason, it is often present in the manufacturing of electronic devices and components.

And finally, ethanol can replace fossil fuels in industrial boilers and power plants, helping reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs).

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Ethanols in fuel

Because ethanol is a renewable fuel produced from crops such as grains, sugarbeet, sugar cane, fruits and other agricultural products, it is a sustainable and environmentally-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, which of course contribute to climate change. Ethanol produces fewer GHG emissions during its production and use, and therefore has a smaller carbon footprint than gasoline.

One of the primary purposes of ethanol is as a fuel additive. Ethanol is commonly mixed with gasoline in various proportions, ranging from E5 to E85, depending on the country and regulations. The E numbers relate to the percentage of ethanol fuel in the mixture by volume (e.g. E85 is 85% anhydrous ethanol and 15% gasoline). E10 is the most common blend in many countries. E85 is used in flex-fuel vehicles that can run on gasoline and ethanol.

The addition of ethanol to gasoline can increase the fuel's octane rating, which improves engine performance and reduces GHG emissions. In some countries, ethanol is used as a standalone fuel, particularly Brazil, where it is produced from sugarcane and used as a biofuel in vehicles.

Ethanol is a renewable, clean-burning fuel that can reduce dependence on fossil fuels and thereby reduce GHGs. Although at Nedstar we are very conscious of the importance of reducing emissions and dependence on fossil fuels, we currently do not supply ethanol for use as a fuel.