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Ethylene glycol was first prepared in 1859 by the French chemist Charles Wurtz. It was produced on a small scale during World War I as a coolant and as an ingredient in explosives. Widespread industrial production began in 1937, when its precursor ethylene oxide became cheaply available.
When first introduced it created a minor revolution in aircraft design because when used in place of water as a radiator coolant, its higher boiling point allowed for smaller radiators operating at higher temperatures. Prior to the widespead availability of ethylene glycol, many aircraft manufacturers tried to use evaporative cooling systems which used water at high pressure. Invariably these proved to be rather unreliable and easily damaged in combat because they took up large amounts of room on the plane, where they were easily hit by gunfire.
reaction can be catalyzed by either acids or bases, or can occur at neutral pH under elevated temperatures. The highest yields of ethylene glycol occur at acidic or neutral pH, with a large excess of water present. Under these conditions, ethylene glycol yields of 90% can be achieved. The major byproducts are the ethylene glycol oligomers diethylene glycol, triethylene glycol, and tetraethylene glycol.
The major use of ethylene glycol is as an engine coolant and antifreeze. Due to its low boiling point, it has also been used as a deicing fluid for windshields and jet engines. Ethylene glycol has become increasingly important in the plastics industry for the manufacture of polyester fibers and resins, including polyethylene terephthalate, which is used to make plastic bottles for soft drinks.
Minor uses of ethylene glycol include the manufacture of capacitors and as a chemical intermediate in the manufacture of 1,4-dioxane.
Ethylene glycol is also used in vaccines.
The major danger from ethylene glycol is from its ingestion. Due to its sweet taste, children and animals will sometimes consume large quantities of it if given access to antifreeze. Symptoms of ethylene glycol poisoning follow a three-step progression. Initially, victims may appear to be intoxicated, exhibiting symptoms such as dizziness, slurred speech, and confusion. Over time, the body metabolizes ethylene glycol into another toxin, oxalic acid. Buildup of this substance results in irregularities in the victim's heartbeat and breathing. In the final stage, the victim suffers kidney failure.
Victims of ethylene glycol poisioning who are still conscious may be given milk or water to drink to delay the effects of the poison. In any case, medical attention should be sought immediately. Ethylene glycol doses as small as 30 milliliters (2 tablespoons) can be lethal to adults.