hydrocarbon hī˝drōkär´bən [key], any organic compound composed solely of the elements hydrogen and carbon. The hydrocarbons differ both in the total number of carbon and hydrogen atoms in their molecules and in the proportion of hydrogen to carbon. The hydrocarbons can be divided into various homologous series. Each member of such a series shows a definite relationship in its structural formula to the members preceding and following it, and there is generally some regularity in changes in physical properties of successive members of a series. The alkanes are a homologous series of saturated aliphatic hydrocarbons. The first and simplest member of this series is methane, CH4; the series is sometimes called the methane series. Each successive member of a homologous series of hydrocarbons has one more carbon and two more hydrogen atoms in its molecule than the preceding member. The second alkane is ethane, C2H6, and the third is propane, C3H8. Alkanes have the general formula CnH2n+2 (where n is an integer greater than or equal to 1). Generally, hydrocarbons of low molecular weight, e.g., methane, ethane, and propane, are gases; those of intermediate molecular weight, e.g., hexane, heptane, and octane, are liquids; and those of high molecular weight, e.g., eicosane (C20H42) and polyethylene, are solids. Paraffin is a mixture of high-molecular-weight alkanes; the alkanes are sometimes called the paraffin series. Other homologous series of hydrocarbons include the alkenes and the alkynes. The various alkyl derivatives of benzene are sometimes referred to as the benzene series. Many common natural substances, e.g., natural gas, petroleum, and asphalt, are complex mixtures of hydrocarbons. The coal tar obtained from coal by coking is also a mixture of hydrocarbons. Natural gas, petroleum, and coal tar are important sources of many hydrocarbons. These complex mixtures can be refined into simpler mixtures or pure substances by fractional distillation. During the refining of petroleum, one kind of hydrocarbon is often converted to another, more useful kind by cracking. Useful hydrocarbon mixtures include cooking gas, gasoline, naphtha, benzine, kerosene, paraffin, and lubricating oils. Many hydrocarbons are useful as fuels; they burn in air to form carbon dioxide and water. The hydrocarbons differ in chemical activity. The alkanes are unaffected by many common reagents, while the alkenes and alkynes are much more reactive, as a result of the presence of unsaturation (i.e., a carbon-carbon double or triple bond) in their molecules. Many important compounds are derived from hydrocarbons, either by substitution or replacement by some other chemical group or element of one or more of the hydrogen atoms of the hydrocarbon molecule, or by the addition of some element or group to a double or triple bond (in an unsaturated hydrocarbon). Such derivatives include alcohols, aldehydes, ethers, carboxylic acids, and halocarbons.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Organic Chemistry