Powdered Alcohol Is the Latest Buzz … Again

Palcohol is getting a lot of attention, but a powdered alcohol was patented decades ago.Yesterday This Day’s Madness did prepare;
To-morrow’s Silence, Triumph, or Despair:
Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why:
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.

Omar Khayyam, Written 1120 A.C.E.

Wine, beer and other fermented drinks have been consumed by humans for several thousand years. From rituals to celebrations, alcoholic beverages are a customary part of our social life.

But did you know that the word “alcohol” is derived from the Arabic “kuhl,” or “kohol,” which means a very fine powder? By the 16th century, the meaning of the word had changed to mean “essence,” and the term “alcool vini” described the subtle part of wine. By the 19th century, the term alcohol began to be used to describe wine spirits. Distillation of alcohol is believed to have originated in Italy in the 11th century.

Relaxation and Toxicity

Ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, one of the oldest known organic chemicals, is produced naturally during fermentation of wine and beer. It is responsible for both relaxation and toxicity and is inseparable from the history of humanity. Once ingested, alcohol travels through the body, and most of it is cleared by the liver, although some can be detected through the skin. Adsorption rates differ for men and women. The closest relatives of ethyl alcohol, methanol and n-propanol (one carbon atom shorter or longer) are toxic and deadly to humans but are used industrially and as solvents.

Ethyl alcohol has historically been used medicinally to prepare tonics, tinctures, herbal extracts, and antiseptics, and is currently used in manufacturing pharmaceuticals as well as many other products, including adhesives, paints, plastics, toiletries, textiles, explosives, and many others. In beverages, alcohol content varies from 1.2% in cider to 40% or more in distilled spirits. During distillation, alcohol forms an azeotrope with water at 96%, i.e., it cannot be separated from water any further by distillation alone, and food-grade alcohol typically does not exceed this concentration.

The recent news about a powdered alcohol product, Palcohol, has ignited a stream of opinions, safety concerns, and public curiosity on how and why to make such a product. Palcohol was first allowed by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which then announced the approval was an error (due to an inconsistency in the product’s labeling).

Earlier Attempts

But, powdered alcohol is not a new invention. U.S. patent US 3795747 A filed in 1972 by General Foods Corporation describes in detail the preparation of “flowable, high alcohol-containing powder which can be produced in the presence of substantial quantities of moisture and which, when packaged in a sealed container, is stable.”

The patented alcohol carbohydrate-based powder from 1972, which had an ethanol content of up to 60%, could readily dissolve in cold water, resulting in non-sweet, clear and colorless liquid of low viscosity. It had a minimal tendency to lump, plus a capacity to absorb flavoring agents in addition to alcohol, and also preserve those soluble exclusively in alcohol itself.

All of this was accomplished by “bulking,” or increasing the volume and surface area of dextrins with low (5-15) dextrose equivalent, which, unlike other carbohydrates that were limited to absorption of anhydrous alcohol, could absorb alcohol containing up to 7 percent water and remain in a flowable powdered form. The water content is important because of the above-mentioned azeotrope of alcohol and water, while many processes resulting in absolute alcohol render it undrinkable.

Dextrins, the low molecular weight polymers of D-glucose, can be produced from starch. Specific dextrins, patented in 1972 for powdered alcohol, were short oligomers with a high content of trimers, hexamers, and heptamers of glucose, with an average molecular weight of 1,600, produced by enzymatic hydrolysis. Cyclodextrins containing six glucose units are quite common as food additives and are used as dietary fiber, as emulsifying agents in food, and for drug delivery. Increasing the surface area of dextrins destined for alcohol absorption was performed by drying a dextrin film prepared from an aqueous solution of about 50% dextrin on an atmospheric drum dryer, resulting in fine particles of high bulk volume.

Stable Product

The prepared dextrin powder remained stable after alcohol absorption if sealed hermetically. The patented alcohol-containing powder was intended not only to prepare alcoholic beverages, but also puddings and topping mixtures, and to be used as flaming agent for some desserts. The 1972 powdered alcohol patent is intentionally presented in a detailed format to encourage its use while protecting the invention:

By the foregoing, the present invention has been described in such detail as to enable others skilled-in-the-art to make and use the same, and, by applying current knowledge, adopt the same for use under varying conditions of service, without departing from the essential features of novelty thereof, which are intended to be defined and secured by the appended claims.

Since then, powdered alcohol has reappeared twice, in 2007 and in 2008. As far as Palcohol, it is in the process of obtaining a patent, according to Palcohol website. And it appears that somewhat scandalized attention to the product serves as a good advertisement for it. It’s marketed as a product intended to eliminate the inconvenience of carrying liquid alcohol anywhere where you can’t do without it, but many see its potential for abuse by children and teens.

Image by tobi/123RF.
Source: “The Rubaiyat,” by Omar Khayyam (LXXIV), classics.mit.edu.
Source: “Ethyl Alcohol Handbook” [pdf], Equistar, itecref.com.
Source: “The Path of Alcohol in the Body,” scramsystems.com.
Source: “Absorption rate factors.” Office of Alcohol and Drug Education.
Source: Palcohol. palcohol.com.
Source: “The Science Behind Powdered Alcohol, the Latest Way to Get Drunk,” by Jason Koebler, motherboard.vice.com, April 21, 2014.
Source: “Powdered Alcohol: 3 Important Things You Should Know,” by Mario Aguilar, gizmodo.com, April 21, 2014.
Source: “How the Heck Do You Make Powdered Alcohol?” by Alexandra Sifferlin, time.com, April 22, 2014.
Source: Patents. Alcohol-containing powder. US 3795747 A. google.com/patents. March 31, 1972.
Source: “Just Add Water — Students Invent Alcohol Powder,” reuters.com, June 6, 2007.
Source: “Alcohol Powder Starts Flowing,” by Audrey Amara, science20.com, July 4, 2008.