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What Is Ethylene Glycol?

By Paul Scott
Updated May 17, 2024
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Ethylene glycol is an organic compound produced by a reaction between ethylene oxide and water. The compound is a colorless, viscous fluid with a syrupy sweet taste and no odor. The most common uses of ethylene glycol are as a coolant, heat transfer, and anti-freeze agent, as well as a component in many household products such as paints, cosmetics, and detergents. It is also extensively used as a process agent in polymer production. Ethylene glycol is toxic and, if ingested, can cause fatal poisoning.

French chemist Charles-Adolphe Wurtz first synthesized ethylene glycol in 1859 from potassium hydroxide using a saponification process similar to that used to produce commercial soaps. He continued his work with the compound and eventually perfected the current production method of hydrating ethylene oxide in 1860. The compound saw little commercial use prior to 1914, but began to be used extensively as a glycerol substitute in the manufacture of dynamite during and after the First World War. In the 21st century, ethylene glycol is a common component in a host of domestic and industrial products and processes.

One of the compounds most common uses is as an anti-freeze and conductive heat transfer agent. In this role, it sees use in automotive cooling systems, water chiller air conditioners, and air handlers, and is even used as a cooling agent in high-performance computers. It is particularly effective as an anti-freeze agent with a 60/40 percent ethylene glycol/water mixture resisting freezing to –49° Fahrenheit (-45° Celsius). It should, however, never be used alone as an automotive coolant, as it can cause a drop in engine cooling efficiency.

The plastics industry is also a large consumer of ethylene glycol for use as a precursor in polymer resin and polyester fiber production. The compound is also a widely-used component in the manufacture of many detergents, cosmetics, and some medicines such as vaccines. In addition, it is used in the formulation of a range of dyes, inks, paints, and shoe polish. Many schools also use the compound as a safe alternative to formaldehyde for the preservation of laboratory specimens. Ethylene glycol is even used as a cheap and highly-effective agent in the treatment of rot in wooden structures, particularly boats.

The storage and use of pure ethylene glycol, or any product containing significant quantities of it, should be approached with great care, as the compound is toxic. This is particularly true of environments where young children are present, as the sweet taste of the compound often leads to large quantities being ingested accidentally. Absorption of large quantities can effect the heart, central nervous system, and kidneys, and is often fatal. If a case of ethylene glycol poisoning is suspected, the victim should be taken to a hospital immediately as any delays in treatment will significantly decrease the prognosis for an acceptable recovery.

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