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21.5: Solvents, Paints, and Waxes

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  • Learning Objective

    • List the properties and uses of solvents, paints, and, waxes.


    A solvent is a substance that dissolves a solute, resulting in a solution. A solvent is usually a liquid but can also be a solid, a gas, or a supercritical fluid. The quantity of solute that can dissolve in a specific volume of solvent varies with temperature. Common uses for organic solvents are in dry cleaning (e.g. tetrachloroethylene), as paint thinners (e.g. toluene, turpentine), as nail polish removers and glue solvents (acetone, methyl acetate, ethyl acetate), in spot removers (e.g. hexane, petrol ether), in detergents (citrus terpenes) and in perfumes (ethanol). Water is a solvent for polar molecules and the most common solvent used by living things; all the ions and proteins in a cell are dissolved in water within a cell. Solvents find various applications in chemical, pharmaceutical, oil, and gas industries, including in chemical syntheses and purification processes.

    Most organic solvents are flammable or highly flammable, depending on their volatility. Exceptions are some chlorinated solvents like dichloromethane and chloroform. Mixtures of solvent vapors and air can explode. Solvent vapors are heavier than air; they will sink to the bottom and can travel large distances nearly undiluted. Solvent vapors can also be found in supposedly empty drums and cans, posing a flash fire hazard; hence empty containers of volatile solvents should be stored open and upside down.


    Paint is any pigmented liquid, liquefiable, or solid mastic composition that, after application to a substrate in a thin layer, converts to a solid film. It is most commonly used to protect, color, or provide texture to objects.

    Paint was one of the earliest inventions of humanity. Some cave paintings drawn with red or yellow ochre, hematite, manganese oxide, and charcoal may have been made by early Homo sapiens as long as 40,000 years ago.[3] Paint may be even older. In 2003 and 2004, South African archeologists reported finds in Blombos Cave of a 100,000-year-old human-made ochre-based mixture that could have been used like paint.[4][5] Further excavation in the same cave resulted in the 2011 report of a complete toolkit for grinding pigments and making a primitive paint-like substance.[5][6]

    By the proper onset of the Industrial Revolution, in the mid-18th century, paint was being ground in steam-powered mills, and an alternative to lead-based pigments had been found in a white derivative of zinc oxide. Interior house painting increasingly became the norm as the 19th century progressed, both for decorative reasons and because the paint was effective in preventing the walls rotting from damp. Linseed oil was also increasingly used as an inexpensive binder.

    In 1866, Sherwin-Williams Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) in the United States opened as a large paint-maker and invented a paint that could be used from the tin without preparation.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) Sherwin Williams company store in Hillsboro, Oregon

    The binder is the film-forming component of paint.[10] It is the only component that is always present among all the various types of formulations. Many binders are too thick to be applied and must be thinned. The type of thinner, if present, varies with the binder. The binder imparts properties such as gloss, durability, flexibility, and toughness.[11] Binders include synthetic or natural resins such as alkyds, acrylics, vinyl-acrylics, vinyl acetate/ethylene (VAE), polyurethanes, polyesters, melamine resins, epoxy, silanes or siloxanes or oils.

    The main purposes of the diluent are to dissolve the polymer and adjust the viscosity of the paint. It is volatile and does not become part of the paint film. It also controls flow and application properties, and in some cases can affect the stability of the paint while in liquid state. Its main function is as the carrier for the non volatile components. To spread heavier oils (for example, linseed) as in oil-based interior house paint, a thinner oil is required. These volatile substances impart their properties temporarily—once the solvent has evaporated, the remaining paint is fixed to the surface. Some paints have no diluent. Water is the main diluent for water-borne paints, even the co-solvent types.

    Solvent-borne, also called oil-based, paints can have various combinations of organic solvents as the diluent, including aliphatics, aromatics, alcohols, ketones and white spirit. Specific examples are organic solvents such as petroleum distillate, esters, glycol ethers, and the like. Sometimes volatile low-molecular weight synthetic resins also serve as diluents.

    Pigments are granular solids incorporated in the paint to contribute color. Dyes are colorants that dissolve in the paint. Fillers are granular solids incorporated to impart toughness, texture, give the paint special properties,[16] or to reduce the cost of the paint. During production, the size of such particles can be measured with a Hegman gauge. Rather than using only solid particles, some paints contain dyes instead of or in combination with pigments.

    Pigments can be classified as either natural or synthetic. Natural pigments include various clays, calcium carbonate, mica, silicas, and talcs. Synthetics would include engineered molecules, calcined clays, blanc fixe, precipitated calcium carbonate, and synthetic pyrogenic silicas.

    Some pigments are toxic, such as the lead pigments that are used in lead paint. Paint manufacturers began replacing white lead pigments with titanium white (titanium dioxide), before lead was banned in paint for residential use in 1978 by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. The titanium dioxide used in most paints today is often coated with silica/alumina/zirconium for various reasons, such as better exterior durability, or better hiding performance (opacity) promoted by more optimal spacing within the paint film.[17]


    Waxes are organic compounds, hydrocarbons that characteristically consist of long aliphatic alkyl chains, although aromatic compounds may also be present. Natural waxes may contain unsaturated bonds and include various functional groups such as fatty acids, primary and secondary alcohols, ketones, aldehydes and fatty acid esters. Synthetic waxes (e.g. polyethylene and polypropylene waxes) often consist of homologous series of long-chain aliphatic hydrocarbons (alkanes or paraffins) that lack functional groups.[1]

    The best known animal wax is beeswax used in constructing the honeycombs of honeybees, but other insects secrete waxes. A major component of the beeswax is myricyl palmitate which is an ester of triacontanol and palmitic acid. Its melting point is 62-65 °C. Spermaceti occurs in large amounts in the head oil of the sperm whale. One of its main constituents is cetyl palmitate, another ester of a fatty acid and a fatty alcohol. Lanolin is a wax obtained from wool, consisting of esters of sterols.[1]

    Plants secrete waxes into and on the surface of their cuticles as a way to control evaporation, wettability and hydration.[3] The epicuticular waxes of plants are mixtures of substituted long-chain aliphatic hydrocarbons, containing alkanes, alkyl esters, fatty acids, primary and secondary alcohols, diols, ketones and aldehydes.[2] From the commercial perspective, the most important plant wax is carnauba wax, a hard wax obtained from the Brazilian palm Copernicia prunifera. Containing the ester myricyl cerotate, it has many applications, such as confectionery and other food coatings, car and furniture polish, floss coating, and surfboard wax. Other more specialized vegetable waxes include jojoba oil, candelilla wax and ouricury wax.

    Paraffin wax (or petroleum wax) is a soft colorless solid derived from petroleum, coal or shale oil that consists of a mixture of hydrocarbon molecules containing between twenty and forty carbon atoms.Waxes are mainly consumed industrially as components of complex formulations, often for coatings.The main use of polyethylene and polypropylene waxes is in the formulation of colourants for plastics. Waxes confer matting effects and wear resistance to paints. Polyethylene waxes are incorporated into inks in the form of dispersions to decrease friction. They are employed as release agents, find use as slip agents in furniture, and confer corrosion resistance.



    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) Paraffin candle.

    Waxes such as paraffin wax or beeswax, and hard fats such as tallow are used to make candles (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). used for lighting and decoration. Waxes are used as finishes and coatings for wood products.[10] Beeswax is frequently used as a lubricant on drawer slides where wood to wood contact occurs. Waxes are used to make wax paper, impregnating and coating paper and card to waterproof it or make it resistant to staining, or to modify its surface properties. Waxes are also used in shoe polishes, wood polishes, and automotive polishes, as mold release agents in mold making, as a coating for many cheeses, and to waterproof leather and fabric. Wax has been used since antiquity as a temporary, removable model in lost-wax casting of gold, silver and other materials.

    Wax with colorful pigments added has been used as a medium in encaustic painting, and is used today in the manufacture of crayons, china markers and colored pencils. Carbon paper, used for making duplicate typewritten documents was coated with carbon black suspended in wax, typically montan wax, but has largely been superseded by photocopiers and computer printers. In another context, lipstick and mascara are blends of various fats and waxes colored with pigments, and both beeswax and lanolin are used in other cosmetics. Ski wax is used in skiing and snowboarding. Also, the sports of surfing and skateboarding often use wax to enhance the performance.

    Some waxes are considered food-safe and are used to coat wooden cutting boards and other items that come into contact with food. Beeswax or coloured synthetic wax is used to decorate Easter eggs in Romania, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic. Paraffin wax is used in making chocolate covered sweets.


    • A solvent is a liquid, solid, a gas, or a supercritical fluid that dissolves a solute to form a solution. Solvents are found in various personal and household items, and also used in chemical, pharmaceutical, oil, and gas industries, including in chemical syntheses and purification processes.
    • Paint is any pigmented liquid, liquefiable, or solid mastic composition that, after application to a substrate in a thin layer, converts to a solid film. It is most commonly used to protect, color, or provide texture to objects.
    • Natural and synthetic waxes are used for lighting, for surface coating and polishing, for waterproofing leather and fabric. Waxes are also key ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products.

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