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Published: April 2011
Ethyl ether is a colorless, highly volatile, highly flammable liquid, with a sweet pungent odor and a burning taste. It should be handled with extreme caution because of its high volatility and flammability and low autoignition temperature. It is a nonconductor and can generate static electrical charges that can cause vapor explosion or ignition. It can react dangerously with acetyl peroxide, liquid oxygen, bromoazide, chlorine, and strong oxidizers such as nitrates.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of ethyl ether:
Because of its inertness, ethyl ether is used as a reaction or extraction medium in the chemical, fragrance, and pharmaceutical industries. Ethyl ether is an excellent solvent for waxes, resins, and gums. As an extraction medium, it is used to extract acetic and organic acids from aqueous systems in the cellulose acetate and plastics industries. In the industrial and automotive sectors, ethyl ether has varied applications such as octane and oxygen enhancers in gasoline, diesel starting fluid, lubricating oil, plasticizers and vehicles for products, and removal of paints and varnishes.
Ethyl ether mixed with ethanol is also used as a solvent for the less nitrated cellulose in collodium or collodion solutions (nitrocellulose). Collodion has a variety of industrial uses such as in the manufacture of photographic film, lacquers, fibers, engraving, and lithography. In medicine it is used as a drug solvent and as a wound sealant. Ethyl ether is also used as a denaturant in specific alcohol compositions, and as an entrainer for the dehydration of ethanol and isopropyl alcohol. Because of the toxicity of ethyl ether vapors, it is used in agricultural applications such as insecticides and fumigants. Ethyl ether is a central nervous system depressant and is used as a general anesthetic.
Ethyl ether is expected to grow at average annual rates of up to 5.0% in the Middle East and Asia, and as slowly as 0.3% in Western Europe.