alcohol, any of a class of organic compounds with the general formula ROH, where R represents an alkyl group made up of carbon and hydrogen in various proportions and OH represents one or more hydroxyl groups. In common usage the term alcohol usually refers to ethanol, sometimes called grain alcohol. The class of alcohols also includes methanol; the amyl, butyl, and propyl alcohols; the glycols; and glycerol. An alcohol is generally classified by the number of hydroxyl groups in its molecule. An alcohol that has one hydroxyl group is called monohydric; monohydric alcohols include methanol, ethanol, and isopropanol. Glycols have two hydroxyl groups in their molecules and so are dihydric. Glycerol, with three hydroxyl groups, is trihydric. The monohydric alcohols are further classified as primary, secondary, or tertiary according to the number of carbon atoms bonded to the carbon atom to which the hydroxyl group is bonded. Many of the properties and reactions characteristic of alcohols are due to the electron charge distribution in the COH portion of the molecule (see chemical bond). Chemical reactions involving the hydroxyl group in an alcohol molecule include: those in which the hydroxyl group is replaced as a whole, e.g., reaction of ethanol with hydrogen iodide to form ethyl iodide and water; those in which only the hydrogen in the hydroxyl group is replaced, e.g., the reaction of ethanol with sodium, an active metal, to form sodium ethoxide and hydrogen; and those in which the carbon-oxygen bond becomes a double bond to form an aldehyde or ketone depending on whether it is a primary or secondary alcohol. Alcohols are generally less volatile, have higher melting points, and are more soluble in water than the corresponding hydrocarbons (in which the OH group is replaced with hydrogen). For example, at room temperature methanol is a liquid, while methane is a gas.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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