Ethanol is the most widely used alcohol. It is commonly consumed for its intoxicating effect. It is also used fairly frequently as a fuel. This simple chemical has had huge effects on human society for thousands of years.
In the technical language of chemistry, an alcohol is any organic compound that has an oxygen hydrogen group called a hydroxyl attached to a carbon atom. There are many compounds that fit this description. In common language, the word alcohol by itself usually refers to ethanol. Ethanol is also referred to as grain alcohol. Methanol, a simpler alcohol that is highly toxic, is often called wood alcohol. Historically it was often derived from wood, though other processes are used today.
People have made and consumed this substance since before historical records were first created. It is commonly produced by fermentation. In this process, yeast or other microorganisms are introduced to a fluid that contains water and sugar. The yeast consumes the sugar and produces ethanol as a byproduct.
Fermented grape juice becomes wine. Fermented grain becomes beer. Other vegetable products may be used as well, as long as sufficient sugar is present. Grain may need to be malted, i. E., sprouted, to convert starches to sugar before fermentation.
Because it is toxic to yeast, the alcoholic content of fermented beverages is limited. It can be up to 15%, but is usually less than this. Higher concentrations can be obtained by distillation.
Distillation has been practiced for hundreds of years. It takes advantage of the fact that ethanol has a lower boiling point than water. If a fermented fluid is heated, the alcohol will evaporate at a faster rate than the water. When the evaporated material is condensed, it will have a higher alcohol content than was present in the liquid fed to the still. Repeating this process several times can yield a very high alcoholic content.
Ethanol is the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world. It is a central nervous system depressant. In small doses it generally causes euphoric feelings. Moderate doses can lead to impulsive behavior, poor judgment, and violence in some cases. As the dosage increases, it leads to stupefaction, unconsciousness, and finally death. Intoxication is a major factor in fatal automobile accidents. Even small doses have been found to significantly increase reaction time.
People who consume significant amounts tend to become alcoholics, over time. They can have both physical and psychological dependencies. In extreme cases, sudden cessation of consumption can cause severe symptoms and even death.
Heavy consumption over a long period of time results in major health issues. On the other hand, regular consumption of small doses appears to have significant health benefits. These benefits should be balanced against the risk of developing alcoholism from long term, regular use.
On a different note, ethanol can be a reasonably substitute for gasoline in internal combustion engines. Blending a small percentage with gasoline creates a fuel that can be used in unmodified gasoline engines. With minor modification, these engines can use it straight.
There has been much interest in this substance as a biofuel. Deriving it from corn is controversial, as it impacts food supplies. It is possible that considering the energy requirements for both farming the corn and processing it into a fuel, more fossil fuel may be expended than is replaced. Technology to derive it from cellulose sources such as saw grass is being developed.
Ethanol has a big role in human history. The picture of its use as a drug is a mixture of good and bad. Its role as a fuel is much the same, but its future here is fairly promising.