What is Methanol?
Methanol is the simplest of all alcohols. This colorless, highly volatile liquid is extremely flammable and has an odor similar to ethanol but slightly sweeter. Unlike ethanol, which is the alcohol found in liquors, methanol is highly toxic and can kill if consumed. Methanol is also known as methyl alcohol, carbinol, wood spirits, wood naphtha, or wood alcohol. The latter name resulting from the fact that early on, methanol was produced as a by-product of wood distillation.
Methanol occurs naturally in the environment as a result of the anaerobic metabolism of many types of bacteria, and is found in the atmosphere in small quantities. Over time, this atmospheric methanol is broken down and forms carbon dioxide and water.
Methanol is used in a number of ways from antifreeze to a solvent, however it is mainly used in the production of other chemicals. The largest percentage of methanol – about 40 – is converted to formaldehyde, which is a common chemical in plastics, paints, explosives, and textiles.
History of Methanol
Methanol has been in use since the time of the ancient Egyptians, when it was used in their embalming process along with several other chemicals. In 1661, Robert Boyle isolated it from the distillation of boxwood. 173 years later in 1834, French chemists Jean-Baptiste Dumas and Eugene Peligot determined its elemental makeup. In 1923 a German chemist developed the synthesis gas method of methanol production which is still in use today.
During the oil crisis of the 1970s, experimentation with methanol as a fuel began. Its low cost, wide-spread availability, and volatility made it an attractive potential additive to gasoline. Over blending and poor handling and blending techniques led to the quick demise of methanol as a gas additive.
Today, with the ongoing push for clean, renewable energies, methanol has again become a candidate for gasoline blending. Along with ethanol and biodiesel, it is one of the three main players in the clean fuel arena.
Although is used mainly in the production of other chemicals, compounds, and products, methanol can be used in a number of different applications from denaturing alcohol to the production of biodiesel fuel.
- Used in formaldehyde, acetic acid, chloromethane, and MTBE production
- Used as a solvent in the production of plastics, paints, and even explosives
- Required to produce the chemical reaction used in biodiesel production
- Used in denatured alcohol
- Used as an antifreeze in pipelines and windshield washer fluid
- Used as fuel in camping and boating stoves
With proper care, the shelf life of methanol is virtually infinite. Methanol will not degrade, deteriorate, or decompose. When protected from contaminants and atmospheric exposure, there is absolutely no reason that methanol should not be good from the first use to the last.
Methanol is a highly toxic substance, and great care should be taken when handling, using, and storing it. In upcoming posts, Envirosafe will discuss the proper ways in which methanol should be stored, dispensed, and disposed of including rules and regulations.