Chemical Safety Facts About Methanol

Methanol

Methanol is a nondrinking type of alcohol (also known as wood alcohol and methyl alcohol) which is mostly used to create fuel, solvents and antifreeze. A colorless liquid, it is volatile, flammable, and unlike ethanol, poisonous for human consumption. Methanol is also used to produce a variety of other chemicals, including acetic acid.

Small amounts of methanol occur naturally in many living organisms as part of their metabolic processes. For example, methanol occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables.

Uses & Benefits

Antifreeze

Methanol has chemical properties which allow it to lower the freezing point of a water-based liquid and increase its boiling point. These attributes lead methanol to be used as an antifreeze in windshield washer fluid to keep the cleaning fluid from freezing. It is also injected in natural gas pipelines, where it lowers the freezing point of water during oil and gas transport.

Solvent

Methanol is primarily used as an industrial solvent to help create inks, resins, adhesives, and dyes. It is also used as a solvent in the manufacture of important pharmaceutical ingredients and products such as cholesterol, streptomycin, vitamins and hormones.

Fuel

Roughly 45 percent of the world’s methanol is used in energy-related applications. Methanol can be used as a type of vehicle fuel or marine fuel for boats. It can also be blended into gasoline to produce an efficient fuel known as methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) which can have lower emissions than conventional gasoline. Methanol also is used in biodiesel, a renewable type of fuel made from plants or animal fats that can be used in place of, or blended into, conventional fuel.

Food

Methanol occurs naturally in many foods, including fruits and vegetables. Dietary methanol helps to regulate human gene activity . It is also created in the human digestive system to help metabolize food.

Safety Information

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) monitors and regulates methanol exposure in industrial settings. OSHA also sets permissible exposure limits on methanol in industrial settings to help protect worker safety. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has several safety resources and guides for workers who use methanol in industrial settings.

Exposure to methanol at the levels found in the diet from fruits and vegetables, both naturally occurring and from currently permitted levels of aspartame, would not be expected to result in adverse effects, according to the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COT), an independent scientific committee that provides advice to the Food Standards Agency, the Department of Health and other Government Departments and Agencies on matters concerning the toxicity of chemicals in the United Kingdom.

Answering Questions

How is methanol made?

In industrial settings, methanol is produced synthetically by a multi-step process involving natural gas and a process called “steam reforming.” In the past, methanol was once made by the distillation of wood, which is why it is also called wood alcohol. The distillation of wood is the process in which wood is heated to form charcoal and vapors. The vapors are condensed and collected to form a brownish liquid, creating methanol.

What is the difference between ethanol and methanol?

Methanol is poisonous, and it is one of the chemicals that can be used in small amounts to denature alcohol (also known as ethanol) to keep people from drinking ethanol products such as mouth wash and fuel blends.

Why is methanol in aspartame? Is it dangerous?

In the body, when the artificial sweetener aspartame is digested, it is broken down into the metabolites phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol. While methanol can be toxic in high amounts, the amounts that result from the digestion of aspartame in the body is lower than the likely exposure would be from many “natural” foods that contain methanol, like fruits and vegetables. According to American Cancer Society, drinking a liter of diet soda with aspartame would lead to the consumption of 55 milligrams (mg) of methanol, as compared to as much as 680 mg of methanol from a liter of fruit juice.