Combustion is a term that simply means the burning of things. It happens all of the time around us, from the flame of a lighter to the controlled explosion that powers a muscle car’s engine. Different substances for combustion are constantly being considered for various reasons, including the abundance of the substance being burned and what is produced when that happens. One such substance often used for combustion is ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol.
Ethanol combustion is fairly simple. Ethanol and oxygen enter a chemical reaction with the help of a tiny bit of energy. The reaction results in a significant release of energy in the form of heat and light, as well as the formation of carbon dioxide and water.
Ethanol combustion can be represented chemically using molecular formulas. Ethanol, represented by C2H5OH, combines with six oxygen atoms denoted as 3O2. When the reaction is initiated through the addition of energy in the form of heat or a spark, 2CO2 and 3H2O (two carbon dioxides and three water molecules) are formed. Energy is also released when the reaction occurs.
Ethyl alcohol has advantages and disadvantages over other common fuels. Ethanol combustion produces a quiet flame that gives off few major pollutants when compared to petroleum-based fuels. Ethyl alcohol is also relatively easily made from fermenting plant materials, while other fuels require significantly more difficult processes to create. Ethanol combustion, however, produces less heat energy than many other commonly used combustible materials.
One of the most common places where ethanol combustion occurs is in vehicle engines. It is not uncommon for some farm machines and other lightweight vehicles to be powered only by ethanol fuel. Most cars in the United States of America run on a mixture of petroleum gasoline and a small percentage of ethanol, though this requires that the vehicle’s fuel injectors be properly tunable. In Brazil and a few other countries, automobiles can be found that run on either near-pure ethyl alcohol or very high percentage mixtures.
Another common use for ethanol is in ethanol burners. These devices are also known as alcohol lamps and spirit stoves. They burn alcohol in order to produce heat and light, and can be found in science laboratories, boats, camping kits, and homes. Some ethanol burners simply use a wick to feed alcohol to the site of combustion, while others use gravity or more complex systems. These devices tend not to burn as hot as similar ones that use other fuels, but they are considered safer in many situations.