What is a solvent?

Solvents are a vital part of the chemicals industry as well as being a useful part of everyday living.
A solvent is an inert (non-reactive) liquid substance having the ability to dissolve another substance. Solvents make it possible for a dissolved solid to be pumped more easily, paint to be coated onto a wall, ink to be applied to paper and essential oils to be separated and removed from seeds.

There are two ways in which solvents are used:

  • To remove a substance, as in the case of nail varnish remover or computer screen wipes, and to extract a substance such as in making a cup of tea, when the solvent (in this case water) extracts the 'tea' from the tea leaves.
  • To put a substance in place, for example putting paint onto a wall. The solvent carries the material to the appropriate site (in this case the wall) and upon fulfilling its role is rapidly evaporated.

Other common uses for organic solvents are in dry cleaning (Per- and Trichloro Ethylene), as a Paint Thinner (Toluene, White Spirit), as glue solvents (Acetone, Methyl Ethyl Keton and Ethyl Acetate), in stain removers (Hexane, Special Boiling Point Spirits), in detergents (Citrus Terpene), in perfumes (Ethanol) and in chemical synthesis.

The use of inorganic solvents (other than water) is typically limited to research chemistry and some technological processes.