Ethyl Alcohol vs. Isopropyl Alcohol for Cleaning Electronics in the Lab

When a laboratory has an abundance of electronics that need to be kept in working order, eventually it’ll be necessary to find the right chemical to use for cleaning. For most laboratories, a solution comprised of distilled water and an alcohol is the right solution because of its low-cost and high-efficacy cleaning potential. But, especially for laboratories which may just be getting established for the first time, it may be unclear which alcohol is the appropriate choice to make the cleaning solution. 

The question of ethyl alcohol vs. isopropyl alcohol (IPA) for cleaning electronics has several ramifications for the laboratory supply chain as well as the longevity of laboratory hardware. To shed light on this issue, it’s necessary to briefly discuss why electronics need a special cleaning solution at all.

What’s Special About Cleaning Electronics?

Cleaning electronics is a bit different than cleaning other pieces of laboratory hardware because electronics can be easily damaged when they are exposed to minerals or ionic compounds. The reason for this is that electronic components require the unimpeded flow of electrons to properly function; any disruption in the pre-engineered flow of electrons within a component will result in the component malfunctioning via a shorted circuit at the point of disruption. 

In extreme cases, this malfunctioning can be permanent if the component’s electron-bearing pathways are disrupted by a substance that is difficult or impossible to remove, like residual minerals in non-distilled water. 

However, not all electronic components are equally vulnerable to disruption. Electronics have several features which require special attention, including:

       Exposed semiconductor materials like copper wiring

       Printed circuit board (PCB) plastics

       Sensors

Of these components, it is typically sensors and exposed semiconductor materials which are the most vulnerable to damage by using the incorrect cleaning solution. If water bearing minute quantities of dissolved minerals splashes onto an exposed semiconductor, it will be nearly impossible to remove the trace minerals which will disrupt electron flow. 

While sensors tend to be slightly more hardy because they are exposed to a partially uncontrolled environment to fulfill their core purpose, most pieces of laboratory hardware have sensors which are highly sensitive, making even minor disruptions to their functioning relatively hazardous to their output of clean data.

The printed circuit board plastics of electronic components are typically the hardiest part of any laboratory hardware. However, when exposed to the wrong cleaning solution, even the hard plastic of PCBs can corrode—and manufacturers are rarely willing to replacing a damaged PCB as cheaply as they might replace a sensor or semiconductor component.  

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Cleaning Electronics With Ethyl Alcohol

Ethyl alcohol is a great choice for cleaning electronics in the laboratory because it’s inexpensive, mineral-free, and evaporates quickly. While ethanol isn’t a strong solvent, it is typically sufficiently powerful to clean sensitive electronics which may have accumulated light layers of corrosion or dirt. It’s also a useful chemical for a plethora of laboratory tasks ranging from basic sterilization to removing labels from old pieces of hardware. 

Cleaning electronics with ethanol requires a different reagent grade than for the ethanol intended for routine laboratory use, however, so the ethanol purchased for cleaning electronics will probably be a different item in the lab’s inventory regardless of what else is on hand. 

Whereas standard laboratory task-grade ethanol is inexpensive and most laboratories will have a vast reservoir prepared to tackle whatever is needed, standard grade ethanol is not pure enough to be used to safely clean electronics. Despite having minimal mineral content, the trace minerals leftover from the manufacturing process in standard grade ethanol will have a deleterious effect on lab electronics, though the damage will be nowhere near the damage caused by water exposure. Instead, cleaning electronics with ethanol requires the use of ultra-pure ethanol, which has been purged of all extraneous mineral content. Alternatively, ethanol-soaked laboratory wipes can be an appealing way to clean electronics. 

Ethanol’s drawback is that it can sometimes leave oil traces on the surface it evaporates from. These traces of oil can subsequently cause malfunctions in highly sensitive electronics. This drawback is highly minimized when using the purest form of ethanol, but the most sensitive electronic components may still have problems when cleaned with ethanol as a result.

Cleaning Electronics With Isopropyl Alcohol

Isopropyl alcohol (IPA) is the more common choice for cleaning electronics because it evaporates more rapidly than ethanol and also because it does not leave any traces of oils upon evaporation. Similarly to ethanol, most laboratories have ample quantities of isopropyl alcohol (IPA) around for general purpose use. 

However, unlike ethanol, the most common sources of laboratory isopropyl alcohol are ready to use for cleaning electronics. Lab wipes and reagent-grade bottles of isopropyl alcohol are each pure enough to clean sensitive electronic components without hazard.

Not all electronic components are compatible with isopropyl alcohol cleaning, however. In particular, polycarbonate electronic components, typically in PCBs, seals and gaskets, are extremely harmed by exposure to an isopropyl alcohol cleaning solution. While it may be possible to mitigate the impact of the cracking which occurs when isopropyl alcohol seeps into the polycarbonate by using a more dilute cleaning solution, a better strategy is to avoid using isopropyl alcohol on these components entirely. 

Notably, isopropyl alcohol also combusts more readily than ethanol. While the difference is negligible in most lab situations as both will alight when exposed to an open flame, laboratories which routinely operate sensitive experiments at high heat may find that isopropanol is too volatile to be safely used for cleaning components which may still be warm from use. Importantly the residual oils from ethanol may be problematic in this context as well, so the advantage of ethanol is not assured.

Choosing The Right Alcohol For Your Lab’s Needs

For most laboratories, isopropyl alcohol (IPA) is the preferable choice for cleaning electronics because of its rapid rate of evaporation and its ubiquity in the laboratory environment at the purity required to clean electronics without damaging them. While isopropyl alcohol is marginally more expensive than ethanol, its superior purity characteristics make it a safer choice, especially when cleaning the most sensitive electronic components like sensors and exposed semiconductor materials. Furthermore, most laboratories don’t need to add any items to their standard inventory purchasing to get isopropyl alcohol in the form necessary to clean electronics, unlike with ethanol. 

Anticipating a laboratory’s utilization of key cleaning chemicals like isopropyl alcohol is significantly easier when a laboratory works with a knowledgeable supplier who understands the lab’s typical needs. By working with the right supplier, labs can ensure that they have consistent access to the chemicals they need, when they need them.

For over 40 years, Lab Pro has been committed to providing critical electronics cleaning supplies for cleanrooms like isopropanol and ethanol in California and worldwide. Come visit the biggest Lab Supply showroom in California, or contact us online or at 888-452-2776.