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Did you know that the alcohol present in the rubbing alcohol that we find in the store is isopropyl alcohol? In this lesson, we will learn all about isopropyl alcohol and its various uses.

What is Isopropyl Alcohol?

Are you prone to getting minor cuts and wounds? If you are, then you must be no stranger to using rubbing alcohol. It is a must-have in our first aid kits, as well as in our medicine cabinets.

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Isopropyl alcohol is most popularly known as the alcohol that is used in rubbing alcohol. Aside from this, isopropyl alcohol has other uses, which we will discuss later on.Isopropyl alcohol, also referred to as isopropanol, is a colorless and flammable liquid, and if you have smelled rubbing alcohol, then you know how isopropyl alcohol smells. It is also a volatile liquid, so when its container is left open, it evaporates quickly.

Isopropyl alcohol: The alcohol in rubbing alcohol
rubbing alcohol

Formula and Structure

Let’s talk about the chemical formula of isopropyl alcohol. The chemical formula of isopropyl alcohol is C3H8O, so there are three carbon (C) atoms, eight hydrogen (H) atoms and one oxygen (O) atom.

The chemical formula of isopropyl alcohol can be written different ways. Any way you write it, there are still the same number of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

Different ways to write the chemical formula of isopropyl alcohol
chemical formula of isopropyl alcohol

Now let’s talk about the chemical structure of isopropyl alcohol. The following illustration, on the left, shows how the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms are bonded together.

The three carbon atoms of isopropyl alcohol are bonded together in a three-carbon chain. The two carbon atoms at each end have three hydrogen atoms bonded to them, and the carbon atom in the middle has one hydrogen atom bonded to it and one hydroxyl (OH) group bonded to it. The illustration featured below on the right is another way to draw the structure of isopropyl alcohol: here, the three carbon atoms are on each corner of the chain and the hydrogen atoms, while not shown here, are on the carbon atoms on each corner.

Chemical structure of isopropyl alcohol
chemical structure

Disinfectants and Cleaning Solutions

Isopropyl alcohol is a very commonly used substance – we use it more often than we are aware of everyday. It is used for various purposes at home, as well as for different industrial processes and pharmaceutical applications.Germs and harmful bacteria that can lead to sickness and infection are most definitely a problem.

The good thing is, isopropyl alcohol is a disinfectant, so it kills these pesky germs and harmful bacteria. There are various products used in hospitals and our own homes that make use of isopropyl alcohol. Besides in rubbing alcohol, isopropyl alcohol is present in alcohol swabs, alcohol pads and hand sanitizer that can disinfect minor cuts and wounds so we can avoid infection.

Isopropyl alcohol: a disinfectant
Isopropyl Alcohol: A disinfectant

Sometimes, water just doesn’t do it.

While water is the universal solvent, there are some things that water just cannot dissolve. Isopropyl alcohol, unlike water, can dissolve many non-polar compounds, such as chloroform and some oils.Here is an example of when isopropyl alcohol is a better solvent than water:Did you ever have to clean a dry erase board? Have you made the mistake of using water? If you have, you may have noticed that using water usually leaves streaks. What about cleaning your computer screen with just water? Water is not as effective at taking the accumulated grime off the screen. For both dry erase boards and computer screens, isopropyl alcohol works like a charm.

Isopropyl alcohol can clean some surfaces better than water.
Isopropyl alcohol in chemistry laboratory (left) and biology laboratory (right)
Isopropyl alcohol: de-ice your windshield
De-ice windshield

Did you know that the presence of water in fuel tanks is a problem? Let’s take a look at this scenario: imagine that it is below freezing outside, and your car is outside. The water present in the fuel tank will, therefore, also freeze, blocking the fuel lines.

That is why we want to get rid of water in fuel tanks. To do this, isopropyl alcohol is added to serve as a ‘gas dryer’ in fuel. Isopropyl alcohol makes water soluble in gasoline, so once it is soluble, it eliminates the risk of water freezing and blocking fuel lines.Maintaining the brake system of our cars is also extremely important. When brake fluid accumulates in the brake pads of your car, the result is the brakes become less responsive, or they do not brake as well. Isopropyl alcohol can be used to flush the brake system to get the old brake fluid out.

Lesson Summary

Isopropyl alcohol, also known as isopropanol, is a colorless, volatile and flammable liquid.

It has a chemical formula of C3H8O: it has three carbon (C) atoms, eight hydrogen (H) atoms and one oxygen (O) atom. Its chemical formula can also be written as: C3H7OH, CH3CHOHCH3 or (CH3)2CHOH.Its most well-known use is its medical use as a disinfectant. Aside from that, it is also used in chemistry laboratories to react with other substances to form new products.

In the biology laboratory, it can be used as an alternative to formaldehyde in preserving specimens, as well as the substance used to extract DNA.Isopropyl alcohol is also used as a solvent that may clean some surfaces more effectively than water. It has various uses for our vehicles: it is a very helpful substance for de-icing our windshields, flushing out old brake fluid for a more efficient brake system and working as a ‘gas dryer’ – making water in fuel soluble to prevent it from freezing and blocking fuel lines.

Facts About Isopropryl Alcohol

Isopropyl alcohol has many uses.
Uses for isopropynol
Isopropyl Alcohol
*A colorless, flammable, highly volatile liquid *Chemical formula: C3H8O, but it can be written in different ways*Used as a disinfectant, solvent and reactant.

Also used for mechanical applications and preserving specimens.

Learning Outcomes

Understanding this lesson on isopropyl alcohol could enable you to:

  • Explain what isopropyl alcohol is
  • Recognize its characteristics
  • Recite some of the uses for isopropyl alcohol

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