What Is Ethylene?

B. Turner

Ethylene is a gaseous material that is one of the most basic types of hydrocarbons. Its simple structure consists of two carbon molecules bonded with four hydrogen molecules, giving it a molecular formula of C2H4. While ethylene occurs naturally in plants, it can also be created in the laboratory via a chemical reaction. The vast majority of this material is derived from petroleum by-products, and used to create the polymers that serve as the building blocks for plastic and composite materials. This gas can also be used in agriculture and food production to help ripen certain types of plants on demand.

Apples produce ethylene during the ripening process.
Apples produce ethylene during the ripening process.

While ethylene can exist in a solid or liquid form at extreme temperatures, it is most often found in a gaseous state. This gas has a very distinctive sweet scent, which some may find similar to ether. It is colorless, making it virtually impossible to detect with the naked eye. Those who work with this gas should use extreme caution, as it is highly flammable, and can even contribute to explosions under certain types of conditions. Many facilities that rely on ethylene must use special precautions when storing or handling this material.

For many years, ethylene served as a valuable anesthesia during surgery.
For many years, ethylene served as a valuable anesthesia during surgery.

For many years, ethylene served as a valuable anesthesia during surgery and other medical procedures. Eventually, this type of use was discontinued due to the danger of this gas, particularly its highly flammable nature. Today this material is used primarily in industrial and manufacturing applications rather as anesthesia.

Ethylene can be extracted from petroleum by-products using special equipment. Due to the nature of the equipment involved, this extraction is typically done in oil refineries. This gas is separated out using a steam-cracking process, then subject to refinement through distilling and condensation. Ethylene can also be produced in the laboratory in smaller quantities by subjecting ethanol to a chemical reaction.

Most ethylene is converted into polymers, which serve as building blocks for plastic. It may be transformed into plastic bags, or used to make food storage containers and other household objects. This gas is also used in styrene production, which can then be used to make synthetic rubber tires or even foam building insulation.

All plants produce small amounts of ethylene gas naturally. As the plant matures, it converts amino acids into a gaseous form of this material, which helps the plant to ripen or bloom. Scientists can now expose plants to ethylene in agricultural settings to help speed up ripening and boost crop yield.

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