Solvents Explained

What helps make paint flow and inks dry? What keeps bridges from rusting? What cleans your home and even makes microchips possible?

The answer is solvents—a group of chemicals that have dramatically changed modern day living in the United States and around the world. Solvents have many diverse uses—from paints and coatings, personal care products and pharmaceuticals to pesticides, cleaners and inks.

Thousands of producers and manufacturers, and millions of workers, rely on solvents every day to provide solutions to new manufacturing needs and to sustain excellence in functional performance. In fact, without solvents, many of the products we rely on—from pharmaceuticals to industrial coatings—would not perform as well.

Solvents can dissolve, suspend or extract other materials, usually without chemically changing either the solvents or the other materials. Solvents make it possible to process, apply, clean, or separate materials. Solvents work on the principle of "like dissolves like." Therefore, for a solvent to work, it needs to have similar chemical characteristics to the substance that it is trying to dissolve. Water is also a solvent which is described as "inorganic" (not containing carbon).

Solvents are very versatile, and can be produced or blended to meet very specific requirements, and to make products with optimal performance, including spray paints that dry quickly and don't clog the spray nozzle; inks that don't smudge; outdoor paints that look good and last a long time; and, strong cleaners that are good for tough jobs. Even so-called "water-based" products often depend on organic solvents to get the job done. Water-based architectural coatings, for example, rely on organic solvents in order to dry evenly and with a pleasing appearance and finish.

Solvents can help make showers, toilets, tubs, carpets and other household items both easier to clean and more hygienic.


Panel: Jon Busch
Media: Bryan Goodman