What is a methylated spirit?

Written by tom king
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What is a methylated spirit?
Methyl spirits are denatured forms of ethanol. (alcohol image by timur1970 from Fotolia.com)

Methylated spirits are denatured alcohol compounds. They are made by adding poison or unpalatable substances to ethanol to make it undrinkable. The additives also make it expensive and difficult to reverse the process of denaturation. Methylated spirits have ethanol as a base but may include methyl alcohol (methanol) as part of the denaturing process.

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Two Types

There are two basic types of alcohol. Ethanol is distilled from fruits, grains and vegetables. Methanol or wood alcohol is distilled from wood byproducts. Ethanol is the mood-altering part of alcoholic beverages. Methanol on the other hand is poisonous. This is why methanol is often added to ethanol to make it undrinkable.

Denaturing

The most widely used additive for denaturing alcohol is methanol. Other additives used for denaturing include isopropyl alcohol, acetone, methyl ethyl ketone, methyl isobutyl ketone and denatonium. Without denaturing, industrial and commercial alcohol-based products would make drinkable alcohol cheap and readily available with serious social implications.

Composition

Methylated spirits are in most cases a 95 per cent ethanol to 5 per cent methanol mixture. This does not chemically alter the ethanol molecule, but only makes it undrinkable. Because many of the additives like methanol have almost exactly the same boiling point as ethanol, it makes it almost impossible to use distillation to boil off the additive and make it drinkable. In some countries, aniline dye must be added to make it blue or purple.

Uses

Methylated spirits can be used as cheap and safe fuel for camp stoves or camp lanterns. It makes a clean fire, easily extinguished with water and safe to transport without special security precautions. Denatured alcohol can be used as a cleaning agent, scratch remover and for cleaning electronic equipment. Woodworkers use methylated spirits to make shellac, a natural clear-coat or glaze for furniture and other surfaces that are normally varnished.

Safety Precautions

Even though denatured alcohol is relatively safer to use than other stove fuels and cleaning solvents, methyl spirits are highly volatile and should not be poured into hot fuel tanks or engines or onto hot surfaces like griddles and stoves.

Never store denatured alcohol in drinking glasses or container. Methyl spirits leave a terrible taste behind that you cannot remove.

Properly label all containers so you don't make any mistakes.

Always was your hands after handling spirits, especially before handling food.

Store in properly vented and approve containers. Avoid plastic containers as methylated spirits will sometimes melt certain plastic containers.

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