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Hydrocarbons are compounds composed exclusively of hydrogen and carbon atoms. Carbon atoms are unique in their ability to connect to each other in order to form molecular chains of indefinite length.

It can be useful to envision Hydrocarbon chemistry as being a molecular sized mechano set; where each carbon atom can be thought of as a connector block; and each hydrogen atom can be thought of as an end-cap designed to terminate the carbon atom chain.

The molecular strutures that can be assembled in this manner are limited primarily by one's imagination. However within this framework, there are certain patterns and certain types of hydrocarbon groupings which share properties and which deserve individual attention.

These include:
  • Alkanes - hydrocarbon chains containing only single bonds between carbon atoms;
  • Alkenes - hydrocarbon chains containing at least one double bond between any two carbon atoms;
  • Alkynes - hydrocarbon chains containing at least one triple bond between any two carbon atoms;
  • Cyclo-Alkanes, Cyclo-Alkynes, Cyclo-Alkenes - molecules corresponding to the above description where at least part of the carbon chain forms a closed loop;
  • Aromatics - hydrocarbon chains which contain at least one benzene ring, that is one ring of six carbon atom containing three single bonds and three double bonds.

Physical Properties:

Hydrocarbons, are all hydrophobic and flammable and are the main components of fossil fuels, which include petroleum, coal, and natural gas.

Methane CH4 is both the smallest and the most abundant hyrdocarbon. It forms a gas at room temperature and can be used as fuel gas. Ethane C2H6 is also a gas. As the carbon chain becomes longer the tendency to form less volatile gases and then liquids, increases. Long chain hydrocarbons form thick viscous liquids at room temperature but remain flammable.

Uses and Applications:

Hydrocarbons are highly useful compounds which can be used as fuels for heating, cooking and transportation or as feedstock for the manufacture of:
  • plastics;
  • synthetic textiles;
  • solvents and paints;
  • pharmaceuticals;
  • fertilizers.

Important Compounds and Derivatives:

Hydrocarbons form the basis of manufacturing the whole range of organic chemicals which in addition to carbon and hydrogen contain oxygen, nitrogen and others to form such familiar chemicals as alcohol, ether, acetone and hundreds of others.

Industrial Preparation:

Hydrocarbons are extracted from underground oil reserves at the rate of millions of barrels per day and then transformed through various processes, for example hydrocracking, into shorter chained molecules and molecules designed for specific purposes.

Hydrocarbons can also be produced from elemental carbon sources such as wood or coal by burning the carbon in a restricted oxygen environment to form CO and H20 also call water gas. The water gas can then be mixed with hydrogen under conditions of elevated temperature and pressure, in the presence of a catalyst in order to produce longer chain hydrocarbon molecules that can then be processed into the compounds of interest.

Naming Conventions:

Hydrocarbons have an assortment of common names applied to them, often based on the circumstances of their original discovery. In addition a standard naming convention has been adopted known as the IUPAC system of nomenclature.


During the early 1800's whale oil was the primary source of oil for lubrication and lighting. In 1849, a Scottish inventor named James Young used coal to produce lamp oil and industrial lubricants however the cost was too high for widespread commercial use.

With the spreading of literacy and the declining availability of whale oil, a Canadian geologist named Abraham Gesner was inspired to find a way to distill a similar lighting oil from petroleum. He called his product kerosene, from keros, the Greek word for wax.

This discovery in turn provided the incentive for James Miller Williams of Petrolia Ontario Canada to undertake to find and register the world's first oil well in 1858.

At that time the crude oil was distilled in order to separate out the kerosene component and the thick residual sludge was sold as grease to be used for the lubrication of machinery.


Wikipedia entry for Hydrocarbons
Summary table for the uses of Hydrocarbons
Article on the world's first oil field

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