In chemistry, an alcohol is any organic compound in which a hydroxyl group (-OH) is bound to a carbon atom of an alkyl or substituted alkyl group. The general formula for a simple acyclic alcohol is CnH2n+1OH.
The word alcohol was introduced into the English language circa 1543 from the الغول, "al-ġuḥl". In layman's terms, it usually refers to ethanol, also known as grain alcohol or (older) spirits of wine, or to any alcoholic beverage. Ethanol is a colorless, volatile liquid with a mild odor which can be obtained by the fermentation of sugars. (Industrially, it is more commonly obtained by ethylene hydration—the reaction of ethylene with water in the presence of phosphoric acid.) Ethanol is the most widely used depressant in the world, and has been for thousands of years. This sense underlies the term alcoholism (addiction to alcohol).
Other alcohols are usually described with a clarifying adjective, as in isopropyl alcohol (propan-2-ol) or wood alcohol (methyl alcohol, or methanol). The suffix -ol appears in the "official" IUPAC chemical name of all alcohols.
There are three major subsets of alcohols: primary (1°), secondary (2°) and tertiary (3°), based upon the number of carbon atoms the C-OH group's carbon (shown in red) is bonded to. Ethanol is a simple 'primary' alcohol. The simplest secondary alcohol is isopropyl alcohol (propan-2-ol), and a simple tertiary alcohol is tert-butyl alcohol (2-methylpropan-2-ol).
Apart from its familiar role in alcoholic beverages, ethanol is also used as a highly controlled industrial solvent and raw material. To avoid the high taxes on ethanol for consumption, additives are added to make it unpalatable (such as denatonium benzoate—"Bitrex") or poisonous (such as methanol). Ethanol in this form is known generally as denatured alcohol; when methanol is used, it may be referred to as methylated spirits ("Meths") or "surgical spirits".
Two other alcohols whose uses are relatively widespread (though not so much as those of methanol and ethanol) are propanol and butanol. Like ethanol, they can be produced by fermentation processes. (However, the fermenting agent is a bacterium, Clostridium acetobutylicum, that feeds on cellulose, not sugars like the Saccharomyces yeast that produces ethanol.)
In the IUPAC system, the name of the alkane chain loses the terminal "e" and adds "ol", e.g. "methanol" and "ethanol". When necessary, the position of the hydroxyl group is indicated by a number between the alkane name and the "ol": propan-1-ol for CH3CH2CH2OH, propan-2-ol for CH3CH(OH)CH3. Sometimes, the position number is written before the IUPAC name: 1-propanol and 2-propanol. If a higher priority group is present (such as an aldehyde, ketone or carboxylic acid), then it is necessary to use the prefix "hydroxy", for example: 1-hydroxy-2-propanone (CH3COCH2OH).
Some examples of simple alcohols and how to name them:
Common names for alcohols usually takes name of the corresponding alkyl group and add the word "alcohol", e.g. methyl alcohol, ethyl alcohol or tert-butyl alcohol. Propyl alcohol may be n-propyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol depending on whether the hydroxyl group is bonded to the 1st or 2nd carbon on the propane chain. Isopropyl alcohol is also occasionally called sec-propyl alcohol.
As mentioned above alcohols are classified as primary (1°), secondary (2°) or tertiary (3°), and common names often indicate this in the alkyl group prefix. For example (CH3)3COH is a tertiary alcohol is commonly known as tert-butyl alcohol. This would be named 2-methylpropan-2-ol under IUPAC rules, indicating a propane chain with methyl and hydroxyl groups both attached to the middle (#2) carbon.
Primary alcohol (1°)- Have general formulas RCH2OH Secondary alcohol (2°)- Have general formulas RR'CHOH Tertiary alcohol (3°)- Have general formulas RR'R''COH Hydrogen bond strength order: 1°>2°>3° Boiling point order: 1°>2°>3° Acidity order: 1°>2°>3°
William Johnson in his 1657 Lexicon Chymicum glosses the word as antimonium sive stibium. By extension, the word came to refer to any fluid obtained by distillation, including "alcohol of wine", the distilled essence of wine. Libavius in Alchymia (1594) has vini alcohol vel vinum alcalisatum. Johnson (1657) glosses alcohol vini as quando omnis superfluitas vini a vino separatur, ita ut accensum ardeat donec totum consumatur, nihilque fæcum aut phlegmatis in fundo remaneat. The word's meaning became restricted to "spirit of wine" (ethanol) in the 18th century, and was again extended to the family of substances so called in modern chemistry from 1850.
The current Arabic name for alcohol is الكحول al-kuḥūl, re-introduced from western usage, while the Classical Arabic word is الغول al-ġawl (e.g. sura 37:47), literally "spirit" (the word al-ġawl is also the origin of the English word "ghoul", and the name of the star Algol).
Because of hydrogen bonding, alcohols tend to have higher boiling points than comparable hydrocarbons and ethers. The boiling point of the alcohol ethanol is 78.29 °C, compared to 69 °C for the hydrocarbon Hexane (a common constituent of gasoline), and 34.6 °C for Diethyl ether.
Alcohols, like water, can show either acidic or basic properties at the O-H group. With a pKa of around 16-19 they are generally slightly weaker acids than water, but they are still able to react with strong bases such as sodium hydride or reactive metals such as sodium. The salts that result are called alkoxides, with the general formula RO- M+.
Alcohols can also undergo oxidation to give aldehydes, ketones or carboxylic acids, or they can be dehydrated to alkenes. They can react to form ester compounds, and they can (if activated first) undergo nucleophilic substitution reactions. The lone pairs of electrons on the oxygen of the hydroxyl group also makes alcohols nucleophiles. For more details see the reactions of alcohols section below.
Alcohols can be used as a beverage (ethanol only), as fuel and for many scientific, medical, and industrial utilities. Ethanol in the form of alcoholic beverages has been consumed by humans since pre-historic times. A 50% v/v solution of ethylene glycol in water is commonly used as an antifreeze.
Some alcohols, mainly ethanol and methanol, can be used as an alcohol fuel. Fuel performance can be increased in forced induction internal combustion engines by injecting alcohol into the air intake after the turbocharger or supercharger has pressurized the air. This cools the pressurized air, providing a denser air charge, which allows for more fuel, and therefore more power.
Alcohols have applications in industry and science as reagents or solvents. Because of its low toxicity and ability to dissolve non-polar substances, ethanol can be used as a solvent in medical drugs, perfumes, and vegetable essences such as vanilla. In organic synthesis, alcohols serve as versatile intermediates.
Ethanol can be used as an antiseptic to disinfect the skin before injections are given, often along with iodine. Ethanol-based soaps are becoming common in restaurants and are convenient because they do not require drying due to the volatility of the compound. Alcohol is also used as a preservative for specimens.
Alcohol gels have become common as hand sanitizers.
The formation of a secondary alcohol via reduction and hydration is shown:
It should be noted, though, that the bases used to deprotonate alcohols are strong themselves. The bases used and the alkoxides created are both highly moisture sensitive chemical reagents.
The acidity of alcohols is also affected by the overall stability of the alkoxide ion. Electron-withdrawing groups attached to the carbon containing the hydroxyl group will serve to stabilize the alkoxide when formed, thus resulting in greater acidity. On the other hand, the presence of electron-donating group will result in a less stable alkoxide ion formed. This will result in a scenario whereby the unstable alkoxide ion formed will tend to accept a proton to reform the original alcohol.
More useful is the E1 elimination reaction of alcohols to produce alkenes. The reaction generally obeys Zaitsev's Rule, which states that the most stable (usually the most substituted) alkene is formed. Tertiary alcohols eliminate easily at just above room temperature, but primary alcohols require a higher temperature.
This is a diagram of acid catalysed dehydration of ethanol to produce ethene:
A more controlled elimination reaction is the Chugaev elimination with carbon disulfide and iodomethane.
In order to drive the equilibrium to the right and produce a good yield of ester, water is usually removed, either by an excess of H2SO4 or by using a Dean-Stark apparatus. Esters may also be prepared by reaction of the alcohol with an acid chloride in the presence of a base such as pyridine.
The direct oxidation of primary alcohols to carboxylic acids normally proceeds via the corresponding aldehyde, which is transformed via an aldehyde hydrate (R-CH(OH)2) by reaction with water before it can be further oxidized to the carboxylic acid.
Often it is possible to interrupt the oxidation of a primary alcohol at the aldehyde level by performing the reaction in absence of water, so that no aldehyde hydrate can be formed.
Reagents useful for the transformation of primary alcohols to aldehydes are normally also suitable for the oxidation of secondary alcohols to ketones. These include:
Allylic and benzylic alcohols can be oxidized in presence of other alcohols using certain selective oxidants such as manganese dioxide (MnO2).
Reagents useful for the oxidation of secondary alcohols to ketones, but normally inefficient for oxidation of primary alcohols to aldehydes, include chromium trioxide (CrO3) in a mixture of sulfuric acid and acetone (Jones oxidation) and certain ketones, such as cyclohexanone, in the presence of aluminium isopropoxide (Oppenauer oxidation).
The direct oxidation of primary alcohols to carboxylic acids can be carried out using:
Alcohols possessing two hydroxy groups located on adjacent carbons —that is, 1,2-diols— suffer oxidative breakage at a carbon-carbon bond with some oxidants such as sodium periodate (NaIO4) or lead tetraacetate (Pb(OAc)4), resulting in generation of two carbonyl groups.
Other alcohols are substantially more poisonous than ethanol, partly because they take much longer to be metabolized, and often their metabolism produces even more toxic substances. Methanol, or wood alcohol, for instance, is oxidized by alcohol dehydrogenase enzymes in the liver to the poisonous formaldehyde, which can cause blindness or death.
An effective treatment to prevent formaldehyde toxicity after methanol ingestion is to administer ethanol. Alcohol dehydrogenase has a higher affinity for ethanol, thus preventing methanol from binding and acting as a substrate. Any remaining methanol will then have time to be excreted through the kidneys. Remaining formaldehyde will be converted to formic acid and excreted.
Methanol itself, while poisonous, has a much weaker sedative effect than ethanol. Some longer-chain alcohols such as n-propanol, isopropanol, n-butanol, t-butanol and 2-methyl-2-butanol do however have stronger sedative effects, but also have higher toxicity than ethanol. These longer chain alcohols are found as contaminants in some alcoholic beverages and are known as fusel alcohols, and are reputed to cause severe hangovers although it is unclear if the fusel alcohols are actually responsible. Many longer chain alcohols are used in industry as solvents and are occasionally abused by alcoholics, leading to a range of adverse health effects.