What is methanol? (with photos)

Methyl alcohol is an ingredient in some antifreeze mixtures.

Methanol is the simplest alcohol compound, consisting of a carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms arranged as a methyl (CH 3 ) group, which is joined to an oxygen and hydrogen atom in a hydroxyl (OH) group, giving the chemical formula CH 3 OH. It may be referred to as methyl alcohol, wood alcohol or by the obsolete term carbinol. The compound differs from ethanol – the type of alcohol found in beer, wine and spirits – and is toxic. It is a colorless, tasteless, flammable, highly volatile liquid with a slight odor. Methanol is used in many industrial processes, in some types of antifreeze, as a fuel and in the production of biodiesel.


Methanol has been used in pure form for some time in drag racing cars.

The compound is widely used as a raw material in the production of other chemicals, mainly formaldehyde, which in turn is used in the production of plastics. It is added to ethanol for industrial or domestic cleaning purposes, rather than drinking, to make it unpalatable. This avoids taxes due on alcoholic beverages. The resulting product is known as denatured alcohol, or methylated alcohol, and typically contains about 10% methanol. Methyl alcohol is also an ingredient in some antifreeze mixtures, in windshield washer fluid, and is used as a solvent in various paints and varnishes.

Methanol is widely used as a raw material in the production of other chemical products, mainly formaldehyde.

A growing application of methyl alcohol is as a fuel, either directly or in the manufacture of biodiesel. It has been used in pure form for some time in high-end racing engines, drag racers, and radio-controlled model airplanes, but is being championed as a viable alternative to fossil fuels for more general use. Like fossil fuels, methanol produces carbon dioxide during combustion, but it has the advantage that it can be made cheaply from renewable resources. It also burns cleaner than fuels such as gasoline as it does not produce smoke, soot or large amounts of harmful hydrocarbon compounds.

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Methanol burns cleaner than gasoline and emits fewer toxins into the air.

In the methanol economy, this compound would be the common fuel, with non-renewable fuels having a minority share or not being used at all. Nobel Prize-winning chemist George Olah is a strong advocate of this path. Proponents point out that methyl alcohol is relatively cheap to produce, can be manufactured with little or no waste, is efficient to store, and can be made from sources other than fossil fuels. Also, while converting to a hydrogen economy would require major infrastructure changes, methanol could be introduced relatively easily as it can be blended with fossil fuels such as gasoline to produce hybrid fuels while making the switch.

Ethanol, not methanol, is the type of alcohol found in beer and wine.

Potential disadvantages include the fact that methyl alcohol is corrosive to some metals, especially aluminum. This would make it necessary to replace some storage tanks, pipelines and engine parts. It is also more toxic than many other commonly used fuels, including gasoline.

Instead of using the compound as a fuel itself, methanol can be used to produce biodiesel, which can be burned in some diesel vehicles without expensive engine modifications. Methyl alcohol is heated with vegetable oil, along with sodium or potassium hydroxide, which acts as a catalyst. This process transforms vegetable oil into smaller molecules, more suitable as fuel, and produces glycerol as a by-product.


Humans can tolerate very small amounts of methyl alcohol – which is actually present in small amounts in some foods – without getting sick, as the body is able to get rid of this harmful chemical to some extent, but in larger amounts, it is toxic. In the body, it is converted into formaldehyde and formats, which are harmful to cells. In particular, they can affect the optic nerve and interfere with vision. Swallowing a third of a fluid ounce (about 10 milliliters) or less can cause blindness, and one or two fluid ounces (30 – 60 milliliters) can be fatal. Methanol poisoning can occasionally result from accidental ingestion, but another possible route is through the intentional consumption of denatured alcohol as a cheap alternative to alcoholic beverages.

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Traditionally, methyl alcohol has been produced by the combining of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, and by reacting methane with steam. Both processes are carried out under pressure and using catalysts, and usually the raw materials come directly or indirectly from fossil fuels. To reduce reliance on these fuels, however, the production of methanol from biomass has expanded significantly. Biomass can be vegetable material grown specifically for this purpose or a variety of plant-based waste materials. It is broken down into carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which is then used to produce the alcohol.

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