December 18, 2017
Get your holiday duds cleaned by me.
What molecule am I?

Tetrachloroethylene, often called perchloroethylene (PCE or “perc”), is a colorless, nonflammable liquid that is widely used for dry cleaning—which, of course, is not actually dry. It is not abbreviated as TCE because that is conventionally used for trichloroethylene.

In 1821, legendary chemist Michael Faraday discovered how to make PCE by heating hexachloroethane until it decomposed, with molecular chlorine as the byproduct. This process led to today’s wide variety of production methods in which light hydrocarbons or chlorohydrocarbons are heated in the presence of chlorine, with or without a catalyst, to yield a combination of PCE and many other chlorocarbons. The crude mixture must be separated by distillation

In addition to dry cleaning, PCE is used industrially as a solvent, degreaser, refrigerant, and starting material for fluorocarbon production. Its use in dry cleaning has declined precipitously in the past 40 years because of improved solvent recycling systems and worker health concerns (it is a probable carcinogen). Despite this downturn, its overall worldwide production is slowly increasing.

Potential PCE replacements for dry cleaning include 1-bromopropane, silicone fluids, and liquified carbon dioxide, all of which have health, environmental, or economic drawbacks. So when you send your holiday finery out for cleaning, it’s most likely that it will be treated with PCE.


CAS Reg. No. 127-18-4 
Molar mass 165.83 g/mol 
Formula C2Cl4
Appearance Colorless liquid 
Boiling point 121 ºC
Water solubility 15 mg/L
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