Ether (chemistry)

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For other uses of the term ether (and aether), see the fork page ether

In chemistry, ether is a set of organic compounds containing an oxygen atom surrounded by 2 hydrocarbon chains (alkyl) or aromatic rings (aryl).


A common ether is diethyl ether (CH3-CH2-O-CH2-CH3), which is commonly known as, well, ether. It was used as an anesthetic in the past, and can be used for solvent abuse, as depicted for example in one of the scenes from Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and its movie adaptation. It can be used as a solvent in the manufacture of freebase cocaine. Its high volatility makes it a great solvent for synthetic chemistry as it can be removed with very little effort. However, this volatility does mean that bottles of it can be ignited from a considerable distance, generating a fireball that can easily fill a room.[note 1] You can, in fact, see the haze above the bottle as it just vaporizes at room temperature. Also, it has a nasty tendency to react with oxygen from the atmosphere to form ether peroxides, which are highly sensitive explosives.

Urban legend[edit]

Chemical ether sometimes appears in an urban legend about "perfume sellers".[1] In the legend, a perfume seller offers a strip, supposedly soaked in perfume as is usually the standard practice for testing such a thing. On smelling it, the victim is knocked unconscious and robbed or raped or possibly worse. Although sometimes the chemical is replaced with chloroform (another well-known anesthetic from days of yore), the events as described are impossible. These substances are certainly not strong enough to render someone unconscious this quickly and with this small an amount; indeed, if they were, the person offering the perfume strip would be wearing heavy gloves and gas-mask to protect themselves.

Movies have tended to show that the human body can be rendered unconscious easily; a quick punch to the face or pistol-whip to the back has people out for hours. But as anyone who has ever banged their head or fallen down can attest to, it takes quite a bit of force, often repeated hits, to knock you out[note 2]. Similarly, chloroform and ether need to be used in relatively large quantities, and held near to or over the mouth for a much longer time than is ever portrayed in the movies in order to have an effect.[2]


  1. See kids, chemistry is FUN!!
  2. Kids, do NOT try this at home.