Welcome to Thursday Trivia where we offer up a historical automotive trivia question and you try and solve it before seeing the answer after the jump. It’s like a history test, with cars!
This week’s question: In addition to antifreeze, what was the other early common use for ethylene glycol?
If you think you know the answer, make the jump and see if you are right.
While the earliest automotive engines were air-cooled, eventually water cooling’s more effective heat transfer and transportation capabilities were exploited in general practice in the automotive industry. Sure there were holdouts but water cooling’s controllability and efficiency won over such industry giants as Henry Ford and Karl Benz.
Water cooling still had issues however, and one of the biggest that had to be overcome was water’s propensity to freeze at sub-zero temperatures. Water exhibits negative thermal expansion which means that it takes up more physical space frozen than fluid. As you would expect, that can wreak havoc on an engine with static dimensions. A way to keep an automotive engine’s cooling medium from freezing needed to be found.
One of the first solutions was methyl alcohol, or wood alcohol. This lowered the freezing point of the water with which it was mixed, but it also caused significant side effects, aiding corrosion and evaporating out of the then commonly open cooling systems.
Ethylene Glycol was first synthesized in the mid-19th Century by the French chemist Charles-Adolphe Wurtz. In the following century Ethylene Glycol proved to be an ideal anti-freeze when mixed with distilled water. In addition to mixing with water without issue, Ethylene Glycol also gives it a lower freezing point and higher boiling point. Not only did Ethylene Glycol become the de facto standard automotive cooling system additive in the 20th Century, but its properties also lent it to another, perhaps incompatible role.
Ethylene glycol is a compound that was first discovered by a French chemist named Charles Adolphe Wurtz in 1859. Charles Wurtz treated ethylene iodide with silver acetate. Later the result from the experiment (ethylene diacetate) was reacted with potassium hydroxide. The result was named ethylene glycol as it was midway to ethyl alcohol and glycerin. However, he was not able to find a proper usage of the compound.
In early 20th century the compound was discovered as a coolant and applicable to be used in explosions. During the World War I(1914-1918), the compound was synthesised from ethylene chloride. It was created at a small scale. In Germany it was used to replace glycerol in particular explosions. Prior to this period, no commercial application for the compound was found.
After the World War, the compound entered the commercial manufacturing world. In 1925, first large scale manufacturing of ethylene glycol commenced at South Charleston, Virginia, U.S.A by Carbide and Carbon Chemicals Company. Today the company is known as Union Carbide Corporation. Near 1930, the compound was commonly used in dynamites as it was inexpensive and easily accessible. In 1935, the company opened a new manufacturing plant that manufactured ethylene glycol using a different process. In 1957, the profitable days of Carbide and Carbon Chemicals Company ended as process of ethylene glycol was offered for licences.
Yes, that’s right, that gallon jug of anti-freeze sitting in your garage right now might have at one time been used to blow up a granite quarry or pesky war time antagonist. Kind of makes you a little more reverent when you top up the radiator, doesn’t it?