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Ethylene glycol (IUPAC name: ethane-1,2-diol) is an organic compound widely used as an automotive antifreeze and a precursor to polymers. In its pure form, it is an odorless, colorless, syrupy, sweet-tasting liquid. Ethylene glycol is toxic, and ingestion can result in death.

Approximately 60% of ethylene glycol is consumed for antifreeze, and the remainder is mainly used as a precursor to polymers. Because this material is cheaply available, it finds many niche applications.

Coolant and heat transfer agent

The major use of ethylene glycol is as a medium for convective heat transfer in, for example, automobiles and liquid cooled computers. Ethylene glycol is also commonly used in chilled water air conditioning systems that place either the chiller or air handlers outside, or systems that must cool below the freezing temperature of water. In geothermal heating/cooling systems, ethylene glycol is the fluid that transports heat through the use of a geothermal heat pump. The ethylene glycol either gains energy from the source (lake, ocean, water well) or dissipates heat to the source, depending if the system is being used for heating or cooling.

Due to its low freezing point and tendency to form glasses, ethylene glycol resists freezing. A mixture of 60% ethylene glycol and 40% water does not freeze until temperatures below -45 °C. Diethyleneglycol behaves similarly. It is used as a deicing fluid for windshields and aircraft. The antifreeze capabilities of ethylene glycol have made it an important component of vitrification (anti-crystallization) mixtures for low-temperature preservation of biological tissues and organs.

Ethylene glycol disrupts hydrogen bonding when dissolved in water. Pure ethylene glycol freezes at about -12 °C, but when intermixed with water molecules, neither can readily form a solid crystal structure, and therefore the freezing point of the mixture is depressed significantly. The minimum freezing point is observed when the ethylene glycol percent in water is about 70%, as shown below. This is the reason pure ethylene glycol is not used as an antifreeze, water is a necessary component as well.

Precursor to polymers:

In the plastics industry, ethylene glycol is important precursor to polyester fibers and resins. Polyethylene terephthalate, used to make plastic bottles for soft drinks, is prepared from ethylene glycol.

Hydrate inhibition

Because of its high boiling point and affinity for water, ethylene glycol is a useful desiccant. Ethylene glycol is widely used to inhibit the formation of natural gas clathrates (hydrates) in long multiphase pipelines that convey natural gas from remote gas fields to an onshore processing facility. Ethylene glycol can be recovered from the natural gas and reused as an inhibitor after purification treatment that removes water and inorganic salts.

Natural gas is dehydrated by ethylene glycol. In this application, ethylene glycol flows down from the top of a tower and meets a rising mixture of water vapor and hydrocarbon gases. Dry gas exits from the top of the tower. The glycol and water are separated, and the glycol recycled. Instead of removing water, ethylene glycol can also be used to depress the temperature at which hydrates are formed. The purity of glycol used for hydrate suppression (mono-ethylene glycol) is typically around 80%, whereas the purity of glycol used for dehydration (tri-ethylene glycol) is typically 95-99+%. Moreover, the injection rate for hydrate suppression is much lower than the circulation rate in a glycol dehydration tower.

Niche applications

Minor uses of ethylene glycol include the manufacture of capacitors, as a chemical intermediate in the manufacture of 1,4-dioxane and as an additive to prevent corrosion in liquid cooling systems for personal computers. Ethylene glycol is also used in the manufacture of some vaccines, but it is not itself present in these injections. It is used as a minor (1–2%) ingredient in shoe polish and also in some inks and dyes. Ethylene glycol has seen some use as a rot and fungal treatment for wood, both as a preventative and a treatment after the fact. It has been used in a few cases to treat partially rotted wooden objects to be displayed in museums. It is one of only a few treatments that are successful in dealing with rot in wooden boats, and is relatively cheap. Ethylene glycol may also be one of the minor ingredients in screen cleaning solutions, along with the main ingredient isopropyl alcohol. Ethylene glycol is commonly used as a preservative for specimens in schools, frequently during dissection. It is said to be safer than formaldehyde, but the safety is questionable. Sometimes it is used in killing jars.


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