What Is the Difference Between Ethanol & Alcohol?

By Andrew Napoli; Updated April 24, 2017
Ethanol is an energy source and alternative fuel.

Ethanol is one of many kinds of alcohol. It is also known as ethyl alcohol. The three types of alcohol -- primary, secondary and tertiary -- are distinguishable based on their molecular structure. Since the advent of ethyl alcohol's use as a "green" fuel source, many people have assumed ethanol to be different from beverage alcohol, but it is actually the same.


Ethanol is an example of a primary alcohol. It is colorless and clear with a pleasant smell. Most alcoholic beverages are made from ethanol as the impurities in the fermentation process give specific liquors -- such as whiskey, brandy or scotch -- their distinct flavors. Ethanol is used frequently as an alternative fuel for cars and boats. It is also used in other industrial products such as hairspray, deodorant, mouthwash, soap, shampoo, perfume and hand-sanitizer.

Distillation Process

Ethanol is made by fermenting the sugars found in barley and grapes for the production of beer wine. It can also be made through the fermentation of starches such as potatoes and corn. A natural distillation process will yield ethanol with roughly 95 percent purity. Molecular sieves are used to chemically produce ethanol that is 100 percent pure. Molecular sieves have pores that separate water and solvents from the ethanol.

Physical Properties

The chemical formula for ethanol is CH3CH2OH. Ethanol is miscible with water, meaning they mix together completely with no separation. According to the University College Cork, ethanol's boiling point is 780 degrees Celsius. Ethanol has a specific gravity -- the ratio of water density to ethanol density -- of 0.79. When burned, ethanol forms carbon dioxide and steam. This makes ethanol a desirable alternative to fuel oil.

Other Alcohols

Glycerol is a colorless and odorless alcohol. It is used in a variety of ways in the preparation process of many pharmaceutical products, specifically because it can keep ointments and creams from drying out. It also is used to keep food products from crystallizing. Methanol -- or methyl alcohol -- is a dangerous alcohol that can be fatal if swallowed; it is most commonly used in paint remover. Isopropyl alcohol is often used as a cleaning and disinfecting agent in the home.

About the Author

Andrew Napoli started writing professionally in 2011, contributing to "The Setonian" and "Reviewer Magazine." Napoli holds a Bachelor of Science in education from Seton Hall University.