Structure

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There are three major subsets of alcohols: 'primary' (1°), 'secondary' (2°) and 'tertiary' (3°), based upon the number of carbons the C-OH carbon (shown in red) is bonded to. Methanol is the simplest 'primary' alcohol. The simplest secondary alcohol is isopropanol (2-propanol), and a simple tertiary alcohol is tert-butanol (2-methyl-2-propanol).

The phenols with parent compound phenol have a hydroxyl group (attached to a benzene ring) just like alcohols but differ sufficiently in properties as to warrant a separate treatment.

Methanol and ethanol

The simplest and most commonly used alcohols are methanol (common name methyl alcohol) and ethanol (ethyl alcohol), with the structures shown above in the chart. Methanol was formerly obtained by the distillation of wood and called "wood alcohol." It is now a cheap commodity, the chemical product of carbon monoxide reacting with hydrogen under high pressure. In common usage, "alcohol" often refers to ethanol or "grain alcohol." Methylated spirits ("Meths"), also called "surgical spirits," is a form of ethanol rendered undrinkable by the addition of methanol. Aside from its primary use in alcoholic beverages, ethanol is also used as a highly controlled industrial solvent and raw material.

Propanol and butanol

Two other alcohols whose use is relatively widespread, though not so much as that of methanol and ethanol, are propanol and butanol. Like ethanol, they are produced by fermentation processes (however, the fermenting agent is a bacterium, Clostridium acetobutylicum, that feeds off of cellulose, not sugars like the Saccharomyces yeast that produces ethanol.)

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