| Section8 = }} Ethane is a chemical compound with chemical formula C2H6. It is the only two-carbon alkane, that is, an aliphatic hydrocarbon. At standard temperature and pressure, ethane is a colorless, odorless gas.
The chemistry of ethane also involves chiefly free radical reactions. Ethane can react with the halogens, especially chlorine and bromine, by free radical halogenation. This reaction proceeds through the propagation of the ethyl radical:
Because halogenated ethanes can undergo further free radical halogenation, this process results in a mixture of several halogenated products. In the chemical industry, more selective chemical reactions are used for the production of any particular two-carbon halocarbon.
Combustion occurs by a complex series of free-radical reactions. Computer simulations of the chemical kinetics of ethane combustion have included hundreds of reactions. An important series of reaction in ethane combustion is the combination of an ethyl radical with oxygen, and the subsequent breakup of the resulting peroxide into ethoxy and hydroxyl radicals.
The principal carbon-containing products of incomplete ethane combustion are single-carbon compounds such as carbon monoxide and formaldehyde. One important route by which the carbon-carbon bond in ethane is broken to yield these single-carbon products is the decomposition of the ethoxy radical into a methyl radical and formaldehyde, which can in turn undergo further oxidation.
Some minor products in the incomplete combustion of ethane include acetaldehyde, methane, methanol, and ethanol. At higher temperatures, especially in the range 600–900 °C, ethylene is a significant product. It arises via reactions like
Similar reactions (although with species other than oxygen as the hydrogen abstractor) are involved in the production of ethylene from ethane in steam cracking.
Ethane is most efficiently separated from methane by liquefying it at cryogenic temperatures. Various refrigeration strategies exist: the most economical process presently in wide use employs turboexpansion, and can recover over 90% of the ethane in natural gas. In this process, chilled gas expands through a turbine; as it expands, its temperature drops to about -100 °C. At this low temperature, gaseous methane can be separated from the liquefied ethane and heavier hydrocarbons by distillation. Further distillation then separates ethane from the propane and heavier hydrocarbons.
Experimentally, ethane is under investigation as a feedstock for other commodity chemicals. Oxidative chlorination of ethane has long appeared to be a potentially more economical route to vinyl chloride than ethylene chlorination. Many processes for carrying out this reaction have been patented, but poor selectivity for vinyl chloride and corrosive reaction conditions (specifically, a hydrochloric acid-containing reaction mixture at temperatures greater than 500 °C) have discouraged the commercialization of most of them. Presently, INEOS operates a 1000 t/a ethane-to-vinyl chloride pilot plant at Wilhelmshaven in Germany.
Similarly, the Saudi Arabian firm SABIC has announced construction of a 30,000 t/a plant to produce acetic acid by ethane oxidation at Yanbu. This economic viability of this process may rely on the low cost of ethane near Saudi oil fields, and it may not be competitive with methanol carbonylation elsewhere in the world.
Ethane can be used as a refrigerant in cryogenic refrigeration systems. On a much smaller scale, in scientific research, liquid ethane is used to vitrify water-rich samples for electron microscopy. A thin film of water, quickly immersed in liquid ethane at -150 °C or colder, freezes too quickly for water to crystallize. This rapid freezing does not disrupt the structure of soft objects present in the liquid state, as the formation of ice crystals can do.
Some additional precautions are necessary where ethane is stored as a cryogenic liquid. Direct contact with liquid ethane can result in severe frostbite. In addition, the vapors evaporating from liquid ethane are, until they warm to room temperature, heavier than air and can creep along the ground or gather in low places, and if they encounter an ignition source, can flash back to the body of ethane from which they evaporated.
Containers recently emptied of ethane may contain insufficient oxygen to support life. Beyond this asphyxiation hazard, ethane poses no known acute or chronic toxicological risk. It is not known or suspected to be a carcinogen.
Ethane occurs as a trace gas in the Earth's atmosphere, having a concentration at sea level of around 0.5 ppbv at present, though its pre-industrial concentration is likely to have been substantially less as a large proportion of the ethane in today's atmosphere probably originated as unburned fossil fuels. Although ethane is a greenhouse gas, it is much less abundant than methane and also less efficient relative to mass. It has also been detected as a trace component in the atmospheres of all four giant planets, and in the atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan.
Atmospheric ethane results from the Sun's photochemical action on methane gas, also present in these atmospheres: ultraviolet photons of shorter wavelengths than 160 nm can photo-dissociate the methane molecule into a methyl radical and a hydrogen atom. When two methyl radicals recombine, the result is ethane:
In the case of Titan, it was once widely hypothesized that ethane produced in this fashion rained back onto the moon's surface, and over time had accumulated into hydrocarbon seas or oceans covering much of the moon's surface. Infrared telescopic observations cast significant doubt on this hypothesis, and the Huygens probe, which landed on Titan in 2005, failed to observe any surface liquids, although it did photograph features that could be presently dry drainage channels. In December 2007 the Cassini probe found at least one lake at Titan's south pole, now called Ontario Lacus because of the lake's similar area to Lake Ontario on Earth (approximately 20,000 km²). Further analysis of infrared spectroscopic data presented in July 2008 provided stronger evidence for the presence of liquid ethane in Ontario Lacus.
In 1996, ethane was detected in Comet Hyakutake, and it has since been detected in some other comets. The existence of ethane in these distant solar system bodies may implicate ethane as a primordial component of the solar nebula from which the sun and planets are believed to have formed.