Methyl alcohol, commonly known as methanol, is the simplest known alcohol, with chemical formula CH3OH. It is produced naturally by many types of bacteria and is usually synthesised industrially by a catalytic reaction between hydrogen, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. It was previously manufactured by distilling wood, hence its alternative name of “wood alcohol”. Methanol was first definitively produced and identified by Boyle in 1661, although its chemical formula was not determined until the 1830s.
Methanol is a colourless liquid at room temperature, though it is highly volatile and flammable, burning easily in air to form carbon dioxide and water. It can be corrosive to some metals, particularly aluminium. It is also biodegradable in the atmosphere or in water. It is harmful to ingest methanol in quantities above 10 ml, and its consumption has led to many cases of alcohol poisoning, even resulting in blindness or death. There are various antidotes available to treat methanol poisoning, though these need to be applied within 24 hours of ingestion to have much effect.
There are numerous uses of methanol, including as a solvent, in antifreeze and as a fuel. It is not used in a neat state as fuel due to its corrosive nature; additives and methanol-containing products are employed. It is one of the most widely used substances worldwide, and is transported globally in vast quantities. Its other uses include in the esterification of biodiesels, electricity generation, and for the production of paints, adhesives, resins and hundreds of other materials.
Despite its corrosive nature, methanol has been used in neat form in fuels for specialist racing such as the American IndyCar, dragster races, and related events. Spillages can be cleaned up with water, but one downside is that any methanol fires are almost invisible to spot as the substance burns with a colourless flame.
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