Nearly everyone has spent some time with ethanol in their adult lives. Some people touch it once and never again, and some develop a lifelong love affair with it. That’s because it’s the alcohol that appears in beer, wine, and spirits. It has a psychoactive effect on us that isn’t always positive and can be addictive, but is ethanol flammable, and are we at risk of more than drunkenness when we keep it around?
Ethanol is flammable and can catch fire readily. It has a flashpoint of 54 degrees Fahrenheit (12 Celsius), which means that it is ready to ignite at most ambient temperatures.
This specific type of alcohol is one of the more common and so for that reason, it is important to understand what it is and the fire hazards that are associated with it. Take a look.
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Also read: What Makes Something Flammable?
Table of Contents
- About Ethanol
- Is Pure Ethanol Flammable?
- Is Burning Ethanol Dangerous?
- Does Water Put Out Ethanol Fires?
- Is Ethanol Fire Invisible?
- Are These Fires Good for Home Heating?
- Do Bioethanol Fires Need Ventilation?
- What Happens If You Breathe In Ethanol?
Ethanol is the second simplest alcohol after methanol.
It is the alcohol that we drink.
It is the simplest alcohol that the human body can process and while drinking ethanol can become toxic in large quantities, it is generally considered to be relatively safe to consume small amounts.
It is the most popular recreational drug in the world, and it is legal in most places, though there are countries and parts of countries where its consumption and/or sale is prohibited by law.
You can make ethanol very easily from fermenting sugars using yeast or by reducing certain petrochemicals in industrial processes.
In addition to the effect on our minds, ethanol can also be used as both a disinfectant and an antiseptic, and before anesthesia was properly formulated, it was often used to suppress pain in surgery too.
Perhaps, most importantly, as we look to the future ethanol can also be used as a fuel and it has many advantages over petrochemicals.
Pure ethanol is completely colorless and has a certain “alcohol” scent that is unmistakable, and it has a very strong taste.
We’d like to note that drinking pure ethanol is a very bad idea and it can lead to alcohol poisoning, please stick to products sold legally off the shelf if you’re going to drink alcohol and always drink responsibly.
Is Pure Ethanol Flammable?
Yes, pure ethanol is highly flammable with a flashpoint of just 12.7 degrees Celsius or 54.86 degrees Fahrenheit. (According to OSHA.)
This means that pure ethanol will catch fire easily at room temperature and needs to be stored carefully away from naked flames or sources of sparks.
However, this doesn’t mean you need to panic about the alcohol you keep at home.
As you add water to ethanol, the flashpoint increases, and the vast majority of spirits (excluding those of the highest proof) and almost all wines and beers, have flashpoints above room temperature, though not so much higher that it would be a good idea to put them in a fire or near an open flame.
The good news is that ethanol is not likely to spontaneously combust and as it has an auto-ignition temperature of 793 degrees Fahrenheit (422.78 degrees Celsius), that is substantially hotter than found in most situations in real life.
Is It Explosive?
Ethanol is flammable and can also be explosive.
It weighs more than air, so it drops out of the air fairly quickly, but if it is aerosolized then as little as 3.3% concentration in air can be easily ignited and then explode.
There have been, quite literally, dozens of ethanol explosions at ethanol manufacturing plants around the United States.
For example, on the 24th of April 2009, there was an ethanol tank explosion in Bartow, Florida that saw flames shooting up to 40 feet in the air!
And a distillery explosion in Atchison, Kansas in September 2002, saw an entire plant blown up with debris thrown across the Main Street and which rocked many nearby buildings.
Can It Be Used to Start a Fire?
Ethanol, to some extent, makes an excellent fire starter, given its highly flammable nature it can be lit using heat, flame, or even just a spark and if poured on dry wood, for example, it will burn more easily than gasoline would.
As with all liquid fire starters, the liquid should not be added to a naked flame, or the flame may be drawn inside the container and cause an explosion.
A very sobering statistic, (excuse the pun), is that 100,000 people a year are admitted to hospitals in the United States and that nearly 50% of burn victims have been exposed to ethanol (including drinking it) beforehand.
Someone who has been consuming ethanol is 6 times more likely to die of burn injuries than someone who has not!
Do These Fires Smell?
Ethanol fires smell rather like vodka, there’s a distinct alcohol scent, but it’s not very strong and if the smell becomes strong, it means that the ethanol isn’t burning properly and that there’s an obstruction around the flame.
Is Burning Ethanol Dangerous?
Fire is always dangerous, and an ethanol flame is hot enough to harm, however, assuming you are burning ethanol in an appropriate vessel then it is not particularly dangerous to burn ethanol.
This is because it is a clean-burning fuel.
The formula of ethanol is C2H6O and when it burns in air, the components react with oxygen to form water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2) and assuming that there is adequate ventilation, neither of these substances poses any risk to human health.
Does Water Put Out Ethanol Fires?
Water is not a good choice for trying to extinguish an ethanol fire and it is far more likely to spread it around than it is to extinguish the fire.
A small ethanol fire is best extinguished by cutting off the oxygen supply with a fire blanket or similar.
And if an extinguisher is needed, a foam extinguisher is ideal for smothering the blaze without spreading the burning ethanol around.
This is a big issue for fire departments that are involved with putting out ethanol blazes on highways and in industry as the foam used in these cases needs to be specially formulated with long hydrocarbon chains so that they can properly coat the flames without plunging into the burning liquid.
Is Ethanol Fire Invisible?
Yes, ethanol fires are invisible, and this makes them particularly dangerous as they may go unnoticed for several minutes until they spread to something which burns with a more visible flame.
Even on an industrial scale, ethanol flames can be invisible, and this presents a huge challenge for firefighters called to incidents at distilleries because they need to be certain that the flames have been fully extinguished throughout the site.
This video goes into more detail about why they are invisible:
Are These Fires Good for Home Heating?
In many respects using an ethanol (or technically speaking in industry jargon – bioethanol) fire at home is an excellent idea.
Firstly, because it’s clean-burning you won’t need to install a chimney or a flue and you can rely on ordinary ventilation to clear out any fumes.
Secondly, “clean” burning is a literal thing, and you’re not creating any pollution with a bioethanol fire though, it’s not a perfectly green solution as carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas.
However, given that all burning processes for generating heat involve producing carbon dioxide, this isn’t as big a downside as it could be.
Do Bioethanol Fires Need Ventilation?
As we’ve already noted, bioethanol fires should not need any special ventilation.
However, if they are installed in a very small room with no windows or airflow, they might cause carbon dioxide build-up which could be problematic in long periods of operation.
In this instance, improving local ventilation would be a good idea.
What Happens If You Breathe In Ethanol?
You’re not too likely to inhale ethanol most of the time because ethanol is heavier than air.
However, it is possible to aerosolize ethanol and if you were to breathe in an ethanol mist, it might cause irritation to your nose and throat and even potentially make you choke or cough.
If you were to breathe in a lot of ethanol, you would feel drunk (mood changes, slurred speech, delayed reactions, etc.) and in very extreme cases, it could lead to alcohol poisoning and death.
We couldn’t find a single incidence of death by alcohol inhalation though, so if it happens, it is a real rarity.