Methanol is the simplest of the alcohols, even more so than humanity’s favorite intoxicant, ethanol. It has no color and a very distinct smell that is similar to that found in ethanol-based drinks. It was once called “wood alcohol” because it was made by distilling wood but today, it’s made on an industrial basis. But is methanol a fire risk if we have it in our homes?
Yes, methanol will catch fire easily at room temperature in the presence of a spark or flame. If it is aerosolized, it is also a potential explosion hazard. The flashpoint of methanol is 51.8 degrees Fahrenheit (11 Celsius).
Fortunately, the main domestic uses for methanol are minimal and most people won’t keep much on hand but in industry, it must be carefully stored and kept in a ventilated area away from sparks and naked flames. Let’s take a closer look at methanol and fire.
Your # 1 priority is keeping your family safe. As a firefighter, I recommend everyone has updated smoke detectors that don’t require battery changes, like these ones from Kidde, a fire extinguisher, like this one from Amerex, and a fire escape ladder if you have bedrooms above the first floor, I recommend this one from Hausse.
Also read: What Makes Something Flammable?
What Is Methanol?
Methanol, as we’ve already noted, is an alcohol of the formula CH3OH and after ethanol, it is one of the most commonly used alcohols in industry.
It is a product of chemical synthesis on Earth but there is a small occurrence, naturally, in human beings and most other living organisms as it is a byproduct of bacterial reactions.
Out in the universe as a whole, methanol occurs very commonly in the areas of space where stars form.
The largest known methane deposit in space covers an area of over 288 billion miles across! So, there’s certainly no shortage of alcohol out there.
What Is It Used For?
The main use of methanol in industry is to convert it into formaldehyde the toxic preservative as well as a precursor in polymer, acetic acid, methylamines and methyl tert-butylether reactions.
It can also be converted into other hydrocarbons including gasoline.
In the EU and China, methanol is commonly added to fuels of all kinds for use in vehicles.
There is also real research being done to try and use methanol’s energy-carrying purposes particularly given that it is very easy to biodegrade in the event of a leak or spill.
Methanol is also being touted as a potential fuel for internal combustion engines and, indeed, it has been used for this in some industries already, in particular, shipping to meet emissions regulation standards.
It may also be added to regular ethanol to discourage its consumption by human beings, this results in “denatured alcohol” or “methylated spirits”.
It’s worth noting that many people have died of consuming such denature alcohol and it is a criminal offense in the United States to add methanol to ethanol for this purpose, now.
Is Methanol Flammable?
Methanol is highly flammable and, in fact, it is possible to set up a methanol spirit burner using just a wick and glass container.
In larger quantities, methanol is not only flammable but a potential explosion hazard, methanol fumes are heavier than air which means they tend to accumulate in a room at low levels and they can travel reasonable distances too.
This means methanol should always be stored carefully and in a well-ventilated space away from potential sparks and naked flames.
Also read: Is Methane Flammable?
Can You Burn Methanol?
Yes, methanol burns fairly cleanly with the resulting end products of water and carbon dioxide (or possibly carbon monoxide in the event of partial combustion).
What Flammable Class Is It?
Methanol is a class 3 (serious) flammable hazard, and this means that it can ignite under nearly any normal temperature condition.
It is also important to note that you cannot use a water-based extinguisher on a methanol fire, because methanol is a liquid, you are likely to splash burning methanol when spraying it with water – which might grow rather than extinguish the fire.
Is Methanol More Flammable Than Alcohol (Ethanol)?
First, we assume by “alcohol” you mean ethanol, the kind of alcohol we drink and also use a fuel?
This is an important distinction as there are endless alcohols out there (for example, the medication acetaminophen or paracetamol, is alcohol but it doesn’t burn particularly well).
Assuming that we are talking about ethanol, then, yes, methanol is more flammable than ethanol though there’s not much in it.
The flashpoint of methanol is 51.8 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s 11 degrees Celsius) and for ethanol, it’s 57.2 degrees Fahrenheit (14 degrees Celsius) and that means methanol is more flammable.
This video compares the flammability of these types of alcohol:
Also read: Is Ethanol Flammable? What You Should Know
Is Methanol Toxic?
Yes. Methanol isn’t just toxic it is very highly toxic, indeed.
Ingesting just 10 milliliters (that’s about 1/3 of a US fluid ounce) can destroy the optic nerve in a person and leave them with blindness.
And a single fluid ounce (30 ml) could potentially kill someone.
Unfortunately, methanol poisoning is not uncommon, this is because denatured alcohol and ethanol smell very similar, and it is easy to mistake them for each other.
Can Methanol Blindness Be Cured?
If an antidote is taken very swiftly following the start of poisoning it may be possible to prevent methanol blindness.
However, once the optic nerve has been destroyed, the damage is irreversible.
What Is The Antidote For Methanol?
Strangely, the antidote for methanol is ethanol (though you can also use fomepizole).
The liver breaks down the most complex alcohols in the system first and then the simplest next, by drinking ethanol, it forces the liver to switch to breaking down the ethanol rather than the methanol and gives it a chance to recover.
Ideally, a hospital will also provide dialysis to remove the methanol from the blood while the ethanol is working its magic.
Is Methanol Toxic When Burned?
No, while methanol, both as a liquid and as a gas, is toxic, the byproducts of burned methanol are carbon dioxide and water and neither of these is toxic (though carbon dioxide is a potential asphyxiation hazard).
Can You Pour Methanol Down The Sink?
No. Methanol should never be poured down the sink or the drain and it must be disposed of following the instructions on the material safety data sheet provided with it.