Difference Between Ethanoic Acid And Propanoic Acid

Carboxylic acids are a crucial class of organic compounds widely used in various industries and daily life applications. Among these, ethanoic acid and propanoic acid are two significant members, known for their distinct properties and uses. Understanding the differences between these acids is essential for their effective application in industrial processes, pharmaceuticals, and household products.

Ethanoic acid, commonly known as acetic acid, is a simple carboxylic acid with the formula CH3COOH. Propanoic acid, with the formula C2H5COOH, is slightly more complex. The primary difference between ethanoic acid and propanoic acid lies in their chemical structures and properties, which influence their behavior and applications.

Both acids play vital roles in various sectors, including food preservation, manufacturing, and even medicine. Ethanoic acid is a key component of vinegar, while propanoic acid is used as a preservative in food and animal feed. Despite their similarities, each acid has unique characteristics that make them suitable for specific uses.

Chemical Structure

Basic Structure of Carboxylic Acids

Carboxylic acids are organic compounds that contain a carboxyl group (-COOH). This group consists of a carbon atom double-bonded to an oxygen atom and single-bonded to a hydroxyl group (-OH). The general formula for carboxylic acids is R-COOH, where “R” represents a hydrocarbon chain. The carboxyl group is what gives carboxylic acids their acidic properties and reactive nature.

Structure of Ethanoic Acid

Ethanoic acid, commonly known as acetic acid, has the chemical formula CH3COOH. It consists of a methyl group (CH3-) attached to a carboxyl group (-COOH). The molecular structure can be represented as:


Copy code

H | H-C-C=O | O-H

In ethanoic acid, the methyl group contributes to its basic hydrocarbon structure, while the carboxyl group is responsible for its acidic behavior.

Structure of Propanoic Acid

Propanoic acid, also known as propionic acid, has the chemical formula C2H5COOH. It consists of an ethyl group (C2H5-) attached to a carboxyl group (-COOH). The molecular structure can be represented as:


Copy code

H H | | H-C-C-C=O | O-H

In propanoic acid, the ethyl group is a bit larger than the methyl group in ethanoic acid, giving propanoic acid a slightly different set of properties.

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Physical Properties

Boiling and Melting Points

Ethanoic acid has a boiling point of 118°C and a melting point of 16.6°C. These relatively low values are due to the presence of hydrogen bonding, which, while strong, does not prevent the molecules from moving past one another at moderate temperatures.

Propanoic acid has a boiling point of 141°C and a melting point of -20.7°C. The longer carbon chain increases the boiling point due to greater van der Waals forces. However, the melting point is lower, likely due to the irregular packing of molecules in the solid state.

Solubility in Water

Both ethanoic acid and propanoic acid are soluble in water, thanks to their ability to form hydrogen bonds with water molecules. However, solubility decreases with increasing chain length. Ethanoic acid is highly soluble in water, while propanoic acid is moderately soluble. This is due to the increased hydrophobic nature of the longer carbon chain in propanoic acid.

Odor and Appearance

Ethanoic acid has a sharp, vinegar-like odor and is a clear, colorless liquid at room temperature. Its distinctive smell is familiar to many as it is the main component of vinegar.

Propanoic acid has a pungent, slightly sweet odor and is also a clear, colorless liquid. The smell is less familiar but still quite strong, often associated with rancid or sour substances.

Chemical Properties

Acidic Strength Comparison

The acidic strength of carboxylic acids is determined by their ability to donate a proton (H+). The pKa value is a measure of this ability, with lower values indicating stronger acids. Ethanoic acid has a pKa of 4.76, while propanoic acid has a pKa of 4.87. This indicates that ethanoic acid is slightly stronger than propanoic acid, but the difference is minimal.

Reactions with Bases

Both ethanoic acid and propanoic acid react readily with bases to form salts and water. These reactions are typical of carboxylic acids and are known as neutralization reactions.

  • Ethanoic acid + Sodium hydroxide:Copy codeCH3COOH + NaOH → CH3COONa + H2O
  • Propanoic acid + Sodium hydroxide:Copy codeC2H5COOH + NaOH → C2H5COONa + H2O

In these reactions, the acids donate a proton to the hydroxide ion (OH-), forming water and a carboxylate salt.

Reactions with Metals

Carboxylic acids can also react with reactive metals, such as sodium or magnesium, to produce hydrogen gas and a metal salt. This is a characteristic reaction of acids.

  • Ethanoic acid + Sodium:cssCopy code2CH3COOH + 2Na → 2CH3COONa + H2↑
  • Propanoic acid + Magnesium:cssCopy code2C2H5COOH + Mg → (C2H5COO)2Mg + H2↑

These reactions demonstrate the acids’ ability to donate protons, a key feature of their chemical behavior.

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Uses and Applications

Industrial Uses of Ethanoic Acid

Ethanoic acid, also known as acetic acid, is a versatile chemical with numerous industrial applications. Its primary industrial use is in the production of vinegar, which contains about 4-8% ethanoic acid. Beyond vinegar, ethanoic acid is critical in the manufacturing of several important chemicals and products:

  • Acetate esters: Used as solvents in inks, paints, and coatings.
  • Acetic anhydride: Utilized in the production of cellulose acetate, a synthetic textile and film base.
  • Vinyl acetate monomer (VAM): A key ingredient in the production of polyvinyl acetate and polyvinyl alcohol, essential for adhesives, paints, and coatings.
  • Purified terephthalic acid (PTA): Used in the production of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics and fibers.

These applications highlight the versatility of ethanoic acid in various industries, including food processing, textiles, and plastics.

Industrial Uses of Propanoic Acid

Propanoic acid, also known as propionic acid, is widely used as a preservative in both food and animal feed. Its antimicrobial properties help inhibit the growth of mold and bacteria, extending the shelf life of perishable products. Key industrial uses include:

  • Food preservatives: Added to bread, cheese, and baked goods to prevent mold growth.
  • Animal feed: Incorporated into animal feed to prevent spoilage and ensure feed quality.
  • Herbicides: Used as a herbicidal agent in agricultural applications to control weed growth.
  • Pharmaceuticals: Employed as an intermediate in the synthesis of drugs and pharmaceuticals.

The broad range of uses for propanoic acid underscores its importance in maintaining food quality and supporting agricultural productivity.

Common Household Uses

Both ethanoic and propanoic acids have common household applications, making them familiar substances in everyday life.

  • Ethanoic acid:
    • Vinegar: Widely used in cooking, cleaning, and as a natural disinfectant.
    • Descaling agents: Effective in removing limescale from kettles and coffee makers.
    • Cleaning solutions: Mixed with water to create a non-toxic cleaning solution for windows, countertops, and floors.
  • Propanoic acid:
    • Food preservative: Found in various baked goods and cheese products to prevent spoilage.
    • Personal care products: Occasionally used in cosmetics and personal care items for its preservative properties.

These household uses demonstrate the practicality and utility of these acids in everyday settings.

Production Methods

Synthesis of Ethanoic Acid

Ethanoic acid can be synthesized through several methods, with the most common being the carbonylation of methanol. This process involves the reaction of methanol with carbon monoxide in the presence of a catalyst:

  • Carbonylation of methanol:Copy codeCH3OH + CO → CH3COOH

This method is widely used due to its efficiency and high yield.

Synthesis of Propanoic Acid

Propanoic acid is typically produced through the hydrocarboxylation of ethylene. This process involves the reaction of ethylene with carbon monoxide and water in the presence of a catalyst, such as nickel:

  • Hydrocarboxylation of ethylene:Copy codeC2H4 + CO + H2O → C2H5COOH

This method provides a reliable and efficient means of producing propanoic acid on an industrial scale.

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Commercial Production Techniques

Both ethanoic and propanoic acids are produced on a large scale using commercial techniques designed to maximize efficiency and yield. These methods often involve the use of advanced catalytic processes and continuous flow reactors to ensure consistent quality and production rates.

  • Catalytic carbonylation: Used for ethanoic acid, employing a rhodium-based catalyst system.
  • Hydrocarboxylation: Used for propanoic acid, often utilizing nickel or palladium catalysts.

These commercial production techniques enable the mass production of these acids to meet global demand.

Health and Safety

Toxicity Levels

Both ethanoic acid and propanoic acid have relatively low toxicity levels when handled properly. However, they can cause irritation and damage if they come into contact with the skin, eyes, or respiratory system.

  • Ethanoic acid: In high concentrations, it can cause severe skin burns and eye damage. Inhalation of vapors can lead to respiratory irritation.
  • Propanoic acid: Can cause similar effects, including skin irritation, eye damage, and respiratory issues when inhaled.

Understanding their toxicity levels is crucial for safe handling and use in both industrial and household settings.

Safety Measures in Handling

Proper safety measures are essential when handling ethanoic and propanoic acids to prevent accidents and injuries. Key safety practices include:

  • Personal protective equipment (PPE): Wear gloves, goggles, and protective clothing.
  • Ventilation: Ensure good ventilation when using these acids to avoid inhaling fumes.
  • Storage: Store in tightly sealed containers, away from incompatible substances.
  • First aid: In case of contact with skin or eyes, rinse immediately with plenty of water and seek medical attention if necessary.


What are the main differences between ethanoic acid and propanoic acid?

Ethanoic acid (CH3COOH) and propanoic acid (C2H5COOH) differ primarily in their carbon chain length and molecular structure. Ethanoic acid has two carbon atoms, while propanoic acid has three. This structural difference affects their physical properties, such as boiling and melting points, and their chemical reactivity.

How are ethanoic acid and propanoic acid used in industry?

Ethanoic acid is widely used in the production of vinegar, as a solvent, and in the manufacture of various chemicals like acetic anhydride and esters. Propanoic acid is mainly used as a preservative in food and animal feed, and also in the production of herbicides and pharmaceuticals.

Are ethanoic acid and propanoic acid safe to handle?

Both acids are generally safe to handle with proper precautions. Ethanoic acid, in high concentrations, can cause skin irritation and eye damage, while propanoic acid can also cause similar effects. It is important to use protective equipment like gloves and goggles when handling these acids and to work in well-ventilated areas.


Ethanoic acid and propanoic acid, while both carboxylic acids, have distinct differences in their structure and properties that make them unique. Understanding these differences is crucial for their effective use in various applications, from food preservation to industrial manufacturing.

The importance of these acids in both industrial and household contexts cannot be overstated. Their versatility and wide range of applications make them invaluable in many sectors, highlighting the need for continued study and safe handling practices.

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