Ethanol - History


For more details on this topic, see Distilled beverage.

The fermentation of sugar into ethanol is one of the earliest biotechnologies employed by humanity. The intoxicating effects of ethanol consumption have been known since ancient times. Ethanol has been used by humans since prehistory as the intoxicating ingredient of alcoholic beverages. Dried residue on 9,000-year-old pottery found in China imply that Neolithic people consumed alcoholic beverages.

Although distillation was well known by the early Greeks and Arabs, the first recorded production of alcohol from distilled wine was by the School of Salerno alchemists in the 12th century. The first to mention absolute alcohol, in contrast with alcohol-water mixtures, was Raymond Lull.

In 1796, Johann Tobias Lowitz obtained pure ethanol by mixing partially purified ethanol (the alcohol-water azeotrope) with an excess of anhydrous alkali and then distilling the mixture over low heat. Antoine Lavoisier described ethanol as a compound of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, and in 1807 Nicolas-Théodore de Saussure determined ethanol's chemical formula. Fifty years later, Archibald Scott Couper published the structural formula of ethanol. It is one of the first structural formulas determined.

Ethanol was first prepared synthetically in 1825 by Michael Faraday. He found that sulfuric acid could absorb large volumes of coal gas. He gave the resulting solution to Henry Hennell, a British chemist, who found in 1826 that it contained "sulphovinic acid" (ethyl hydrogen sulfate). In 1828, Hennell and the French chemist Georges-Simon Sérullas independently discovered that sulphovinic acid could be decomposed into ethanol. Thus, in 1825 Faraday had unwittingly discovered that ethanol could be produced from ethylene (a component of coal gas) by acid-catalyzed hydration, a process similar to current industrial ethanol synthesis.

Ethanol was used as lamp fuel in the United States as early as 1840, but a tax levied on industrial alcohol during the Civil War made this use uneconomical. The tax was repealed in 1906. Original Ford Model T automobiles ran on ethanol until 1908. With the advent of Prohibition in 1920, ethanol fuel sellers were accused of being allied with moonshiners, and ethanol fuel fell into disuse until late in the 20th century.

In modern times, ethanol intended for industrial use is also produced from ethylene. Ethanol has widespread use as a solvent of substances intended for human contact or consumption, including scents, flavorings, colorings, and medicines. In chemistry, it is both an essential solvent and a feedstock for the synthesis of other products. It has a long history as a fuel for heat and light, and more recently as a fuel for internal combustion engines.

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