Is Alcohol an Acid or a Base?

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Alcohol ― scientifically referred to as ethanol in many cases ― is neither an acid nor a base. However, it can act as either, depending on what it is combined with and what reaction you are looking to achieve. However, in most conditions, alcohol is neither. Read on to learn why alcohol is neither an acid nor base, more about acidity and basicity, and their relative reactions.

What Defines a 'Normal Condition'?

It is true that alcohol is neither acidic nor basic under normal conditions. However, what does that mean? Most often, outside of a chemistry lab, you'd be combining ethanol alcohol with another liquid, such as water or ice, which is still water, of course. When alcohol is combined with water, it produces neither H+ nor OH-, which means it is neither acidic nor basic. There are also other types of alcohol, such as isopropyl, more commonly referred to as rubbing alcohol. 

When Is Alcohol a Base?

Alcohol is a base when it is combined with another strong base, such as NaOH, and this is the most common outcome for ethanol, meaning it is more often used as a base than an acid. When alcohol is combined with other strong bases, it releases OH-, which is basic. The only exception to this rule is the alcohol phenol, which cannot be basic. 

When Is Alcohol an Acid?

Similarly, as to when alcohol becomes basic, alcohol is only acidic when it is combined with other acids. If you look at the chemical formula for ethyl alcohol, it is CH3CH2OH. The "H" part of the OH is a weak acid, meaning that when you combine alcohol with a stronger acid, it becomes acidic. 

What Theory Lies Behind Alcohol Being Neither Acid Nor Base?

The theory and science behind alcohol being neither acid nor base is the Arrhenius definition. There are many facets and levels to this theory. However, in terms of alcohol, the Arrhenius definition defines an acid as a substance that releases hydrogen (H+) ions in an aqueous solution, while a base releases hydroxide (OH-) ions in aqueous solution. Because alcohol does neither and has to be combined with an acid to be an acid or combined with a base to be a base, it is technically classified as a solvent. 

What Other Substances Are Neither Acidic Nor Basic?

Scientists use a pH scale to determine the core of whether something is acidic or basic. Alcohol is neutral, as is water. Pure water is the only liquid that is purely neutral. Seawater, eggs, urine, and milk are close to being neutral. Acids are commonly found between 0 and 7 on the scale, while bases are classified between 7 and 14.

What Is Alcohol Used For?

Alcohol is used for many things, both medicinally and recreationally. Ethanol alcohol is used for spirits and in mixed drinks. Ethanol is also found in gasoline. Alcohol is also used in the making of methylated spirits, which is unfit to drink. However, it's used as a type of fuel in lamps and stoves. Alcohol is also used as a chemical solvent in chemistry labs and other laboratory situations. This also results in its use in perfumes, lotions, shampoos, and other beauty products.