Science's Greatest Invention: Alcohol


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I’m sitting here on a beautifully sunny day, a little light-headed after a few beers, and thinking about what the hell I’m going to write for my latest blog post, entitled Science’s Greatest Invention. And, suddenly it hits me! As I gaze thoughtfully into my empty glass and the dregs that cling to its bottom, I realise the answer was literally under my nose the whole time: I’ll write about alcohol! Now, I know this sounds like it's going to be another tragic The Tab-style article trying to justify my boozy student life, but bear with me as I convince you of the scientific importance of alcohol.

It is extremely difficult to say when the first alcohol production by humans took place. Currently the most dependable data suggests that the earliest alcoholic beverage in the world was a primitive type of beer brewed in the Stone Age in 10,000BC. This claim comes from archaeological evidence in the form of late Stone Age jugs which seem to have been used to store intentionally fermented beverages. However, it has been suggested that the earliest alcoholic beverages would have preceded this and may have been made from berries or honey in China.

Despite our reputation for being the first generation of binge drinkers, every great civilisation has consumed alcohol in vast quantities. Ancient Egyptian fermentation began around 3400BC in the city of Hierakonpolis, which contains the ruins of the oldest brewery in the world - capable of producing around 1,400 litres of beer per day in its prime. The ancient Greeks wrote extensively on the subject of drinking, and the Romans often traded in alcoholic drinks. Although drunkenness was looked down upon in Roman society, alcohol was distributed freely at festivals, which often lead to disorder and rioting - a typical Saturday night nowadays.

Religion was also important for the consumption of alcohol. In ancient Egypt, Osiris was a common deity and was (among other things) the god of wine. In Greece and Rome, alcohol was commonly consumed socially during religious festivals.

You might think that me calling alcohol science’s greatest invention is a desperate attempt at justifying my own unhealthy habits, but think again. In times of poor sanitation, such as in medieval Europe, beer was a common way of avoiding waterborne diseases such as cholera. The antimicrobial properties of alcohol would have been largely negated by its low concentration, around 1%. Instead, it seems that the process of boiling the water used in fermentation and the growth of yeast in the beverages provided the majority of the antibacterial effects. This was so effective that on ships alcoholic beverages could be stored for months in barrels and used as the sole source of hydration on long voyages. Alcohol is also an effective antiseptic for medical use and is commonly applied as a high percentage surgical spirit to disinfect skin.

The inebriating effects of alcohol have uses that extend far beyond the recreational. Alcohol is the oldest known sedative and was used historically as a general anaesthetic for surgery. Ethanol is distilled with sulphuric acid to produce a ‘diethyl ether’ which when inhaled is a very effective general anaesthetic and was widely used in the 19th century.

Alcohols such as ethanol can also be used as fuels, often in mixtures with petrol which can still be used in modern engines. Due to its easy production by fermentation of plant material, ethanol is a viable alternative to the oil industry and may provide a source of renewable energy in the future. A good example of this is in Brazil, which is the world’s second largest producer of ethanoic biofuel and the largest exporter. Alcohols also combust very cleanly and only produce carbon dioxide and water.

Much of the framework for industrial microbiology was pioneered in ethanol production and humans have been fermenting for as long as they have been farming. Fermentation has taught us many of the skills and techniques we commonly use for the production of a myriad of chemicals we rely on every day. Alcohols are also an extremely important solvent and are often used to dissolve substances that are insoluble in water, for example in the manufacture of perfume and cosmetics.

Finally, there is the use I am enjoying right now: drinking! For millennia, humans have been enjoying the consumption of alcoholic beverages, especially in association with socialising and relaxing, and it has even been suggested that beer actually preceded bread as a staple food! Some studies have even shown that - in moderation - alcohol consumption may even provide some health benefits. On that note, I better wrap this up and put my laptop away before I spill the remains of my sixth pint all over it! Cheers, and enjoy the sun!

#RobertDixon #Chemistry #General #Alcohol

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