For many, alcohol is just what you drink instead of water—you should reconsider your habits. But have you ever wondered what an alcohol molecule looks like?
You might have heard of etanol or ethyl alcohol; both names for the alcohol in drinks. But what is alcohol chemically speaking?
Alcohols are organic compounds with an –OH bounded to a carbon atom. This –OH is the hydroxy group (from hydrogen and oxygen), which provides specific characteristics to the compound as its functional group.
Take two <a title="'What is actually butane? Linear alkanes ' alkanes, ethane (CH3CH3) an butane (CH3CH2CH2CH3). Their alcohols replaced an hydrogen atom with a hydroxy group, ethanol (CH3CH2OH) and butanol (CH3CH2CH2CH2OH). By now, you can guess that the sufix -ol identifies alcohols. That n between the name or the parent alkane and the sufix exists for ethymological reasons.
Just like with <a title="'All that glitters is not butane. Linear alkenes and alkynes' alkenes, we have butan-1-ol (CH3–CH2−CH2−CH2OH) and butan-2-ol (CH3–CH2−CHOH–CH3); but not butan-4-ol or butan-3-ol, which would just mean reading the formula backwards. Note that the general formula of both butanols is C4H10O.
Side note: It’s not unusual to read 1-butanol and 2-butanol with the position number of the hydroxy group at the beginning. Despite this popular trend, the proper way to spell it is with the number right before the sufix it affects.
Should you wonder if all alcohols can be drunk, the answer is no; only ethanol. Even if they belong to the same family, or homologous series, they are different compounds with different properties. Methanol (CH3OH), with just one carbon atom fewer than ethanol, would make you blind. And then it would kill you; which makes blindness less relevant.
The alcoholic ones might keep wondering… Rubbing alcohol and the ethanol chemists use in the laboratory contain additives that makes them unsuitable for human consumption. Otherwise more people would study Chemistry or Pharmacolgy.
Nomenclature and formulas of some alcohols.
This table proves that alcohol breaks down the language barrier.