The History of Anti-Freeze

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The History of Anti-Freeze
Assorted bottles of antifreeze (containers of antifreeze and coolant for cars. products image by L. Shat from Fotolia.com)

Ethylene glycol, otherwise known as antifreeze, is an organic compound used mostly in automobiles. First manufactured in 1859, antifreeze has since become used in most, if not all, automobiles to prevent engine freezing and overheating. However, it was first synthesised not for use as antifreeze, but as a potential explosive. Eventually, it became known for its ability to change freezing and boiling points of substances, which made it ideal to put into vehicles.

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Discovery

French chemist Charles-Adolphe Wurtz first synthesised ethylene glycol in 1859 from ethylene glycol diacetate by way of saponification with potassium hydroxide. Prior to World War I, there was no commercial manufacturing or application of ethylene glycol.

Expansion of Use

Manufactured as ethylene glycol dinitrate (EGDN), ethylene glycol's primary use in the early 1900s was for the production of explosives. EGDN has the ability to lower freezing points of substances, such as nitroglycerine, which is used to produce dynamite for use in cold weather. During World War I, it was considered for use as a substitute for glycerol in explosives. By 1929, almost all dynamite manufacturers were mass-producing ethylene glycol. Because of the volatility of dynamite, the ability to lower its freezing point with EGDN allowed for its production in a much safer, controlled and cooler environment.

Natural Anti-Freeze In Animals

DNA studies on the remains of woolly mammoths, a prehistoric elephant that became extinct towards the end of the last Ice Age, shows a unique trait that allowed these animals to survive in the subzero temperatures of the ice age. Aside from their woolly coats, the mammoth had a form of antifreeze in its blood that kept oxygen within the blood at subzero temperatures. A genetic adaptation in the mammoth's haemoglobin allowed oxygen to thrive in the blood without losing heat.

Cases of Antifreeze Poisoning

Cases of antifreeze poisoning have recently made headlines. In the summer of 2010 at least 80 children become ill after drinking water from water fountains. At around 1:30 p.m. emergency service technicians and the Department of Environmental Protection agents arrived at Queens Elementary School after students complained of stomach pains. Soon after, it was discovered that the water may have been contaminated with propylene glycol, a chemical found in antifreeze. School authorities however, released a letter stating that the chemical, which the students were exposed to was non-toxic. Nevertheless, antifreeze chemicals have been found to cause kidney and liver damage.

The Antifreeze Bill

On February 4, 2010, the antifreeze bill passed from the House of Representatives to the Senate Ethics and Rules Committee. The bill addresses the use of ethylene glycol, because it is highly toxic to both humans and animals and can cause kidney and liver damage. The bill would require the addition of a bittering agent in antifreeze to combat its naturally sweet taste, which many young children and animals find appetizing. The Humane Society estimates that at least 10,000 pets in the United States die from antifreeze poisoning annually. The bittering agent would work as a deterrent for animals and young children.

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