The simplest paraffin molecule is that of methane, CH4, a gas at room temperature. Heavier members of the series, such as that of octane C8H18, appear as liquids at room temperature. The solid forms of paraffin, called paraffin wax, are from the heaviest molecules from C20 to C40. Paraffin wax was identified by Carl Reichenbach in 1830.
Paraffin, or paraffin hydrocarbon, is also the technical name for an alkane in general, but in most cases it refers specifically to a linear, or normal alkane — whereas branched, or isoalkanes are also called isoparaffins. It is distinct from the fuel known in Britain and South Africa as paraffin oil or just paraffin, which is called kerosene in much of the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.
The name is derived from the Latin parum (= barely) + affinis with the meaning here of "lacking affinity", or "lacking reactivity". This is because alkanes, being non-polar and lacking in functional groups, are very unreactive.
Paraffin wax (or simply "paraffin", but see alternative name for kerosene, above) is mostly found as a white, odorless, tasteless, waxy solid, with a typical melting point between about 47 °C to 64 °C, and having a density of around 0.9 g/cm3. It is insoluble in water, but soluble in ether, benzene, and certain esters. Paraffin is unaffected by most common chemical reagents, but burns readily.
Pure paraffin wax is an excellent electrical insulator, with an electrical resistivity of between and ohm metre. This is better than nearly all other materials except some plastics (notably teflon). It is an effective neutron moderator and was used in James Chadwick's 1932 experiments to identify the neutron.
Paraffin wax (C25H52) is an excellent material to store heat, having a specific heat capacity of 2.14–2.9 J g–1 K–1 (joule per gram per kelvin) and a heat of fusion of 200–220 J g–1. This property is exploited in modified sheetrock for home building material: it is infused in the sheetrock during manufacture so as, when installed, it melts during the day, absorbing heat, and solidifies again at night, releasing the heat. Wax expands considerably when it melts and this allows its use in thermostats for industrial, domestic and, particularly, automobile purposes.
Pure paraffin wax is rarely used for carving original models for casting metal and other materials in the lost wax process, as it is relatively brittle at room temperature and presents the risks of chipping and breakage when worked. Soft and pliable waxes, like beeswax, may be preferred for such sculpture, but "investment casting waxes," often paraffin-based, are expressly formulated for the purpose.
In industrial applications, it is often useful to modify the crystal properties of the paraffin wax, typically by adding branching to the existing carbon backbone chain. The modification is usually done with additives, such as EVA copolymers, microcrystalline wax, or forms of polyethylene. The branched properties result in a modified paraffin with a higher viscosity, smaller crystalline structure, and modified functional properties.
Liquid paraffin, or mineral oil, is a mixture of heavier alkanes, and has a number of names, including nujol, adepsine oil, alboline, glymol, medicinal paraffin, saxol, or USP mineral oil. It has a density of around 0.8 g/cm3. Liquid paraffin (medicinal) is used to aid bowel movement in persons suffering chronic constipation; it passes through the alimentary canal without itself being taken into the body, but it limits the amount of water removed from the stool. In the food industry, where it may be called "wax", it can be used as a lubricant in mechanical mixing, applied to baking tins to ensure that loaves are easily released when cooked and as a coating for fruit or other items requiring a "shiny" appearance for sale. It is often used in infrared spectroscopy, as it has a relatively uncomplicated IR spectrum. When the sample to be tested is made into a mull (a very thick paste), liquid paraffin is added so it can be spread on the transparent (to infrared) mounting plates to be tested.
- Medicine (Laxative)
- Fire breathing
- Used in toiletries and cosmetics as a moisturiser or emollient.
- Coatings for waxed paper or cloth
- Food-grade paraffin wax:
- Investment casting
- Anti-caking agent, moisture repellent, and dustbinding coatings for fertilizers
- Agent for preparation of specimens for histology
- Bullet lubricant - with other ingredients, such as olive oil and beeswax
- Solid propellant for hybrid rocket motors
- Component of surfwax, used for grip on surfboards in surfing
- Component of glide wax, used on skis and snowboards.
- Friction-reducer, for use on handrails and cement ledges, commonly used in skateboarding
- Microwax: food additive, a glazing agent with E number E905
- Forensics aid: the nitrate test uses paraffin wax to detect nitrates and nitrites on the hand of a shooting suspect
- Anti-ozonant agent: blends of paraffin and micro waxes are used in rubber compounds to prevent cracking of the rubber; the antiozonant waxes can be produced from synthetic waxes, FT wax, and Fischer Tropsch wax
- Mechanical thermostats and actuators, as an expansion medium for activating such devices.
- "Potting" guitar pickups, which reduce microphonic feedback caused from the subtle movements of the pole pieces
- Wax baths for beauty and therapy purposes
- Thickening agent in many Paintballs, as used by Crayola
- An effective, although comedogenic, moisturiser in toiletries and cosmetics such as Vaseline.
- Prevents oxidation on the surface of polished steel and iron
- Britannica 1911
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