There was once a time when chemists thought “organic” referred only to things that were living, and that life was the result of a spiritual “life force.” While there is nothing wrong with viewing life as having a spiritual component, spiritual matters are simply outside the realm of science, and to mix up the two is as silly as using mathematics to explain love (or vice versa). In fact, the “life force” has a name: carbon, the common denominator in all living things. Not everything that has carbon is living, nor are all the areas studied in organic chemistry—the branch of chemistry devoted to the study of carbon and its compounds—always concerned with living things. Organic chemistry addresses an array of subjects as vast as the number of possible compounds that can be made by strings of carbon atoms. We can thank organic chemistry for much of what makes life easier in the modern age: fuel for cars, for instance, or the plastics found in many of the products used in an average day.


Introduction to Carbon

As the element essential to all of life, and hence the basis for a vast field of study, carbon is addressed in its own essay. The Carbon essay, in addition to examining the chemical properties of carbon (discussed below), approaches a number of subjects, such as the allotropes of carbon. These include three crystalline forms (graphite, diamond, and buckminsterfullerene), as well as amorphous carbon. In addition, two oxides of carbon—carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide—are important, in the case of the former, to the natural carbon cycle, and in the case of the latter, to industry. Both also pose environmental dangers.
The purpose of this summary of the carbon essay is to provide a hint of the complexities involved with this sixth element on the periodic table, the 14th most abundant element on Earth. In the human body, carbon is second only to oxygen in abundance, and accounts for 18% of the body’s mass. Capable of combining in seemingly endless ways, carbon, along with hydrogen, is at the center of huge families of compounds. These are the hydrocarbons, present in deposits of fossil fuels: natural gas, petroleum, and coal.

A propensity for limitless bonding

Carbon has a valence electron configuration of 2s22p2. Likewise all the members of Group 4 on the periodic table (Group 14 in the IUPAC version of the table)— sometimes known as the “carbon family”—have configurations of ns2np2, where n is the number of the period or row the element occupies on the table. There are two elements noted for their ability to form long strings of atoms and seemingly endless varieties of molecules: one is carbon, and the other is silicon, directly below it on the periodic table.
Just as carbon is at the center of a vast network of organic compounds, silicon holds the same function in the inorganic realm. It is found in virtually all types of rocks, except the calcium carbonates—which, as their name implies, contain carbon. In terms of known elemental mass, silicon is second only to oxygen in abundance on Earth. Silicon atoms are about one and a half times as large as those of carbon; thus not even silicon can compete with carbon’s ability to form
"I just want to say one word to you...plastics." Signifying that plastics were the wave OF the future, these words were uttered to Dustin Hoffman's character in the 1967 film The Graduate.
“I just want to say one word to you…plastics.” Signifying that plastics were the wave OF the future, these words were uttered to Dustin Hoffman’s character in the 1967 film The Graduate.
an almost limitless array of molecules in various shapes and sizes, and with various chemical properties.


Carbon is further distinguished by its high value of electronegativity, the relative ability of an atom to attract valence electrons. To mention a few basic aspects of chemical bonding, developed at considerably greater length in the Chemical Bonding essay, if two atoms have an electric charge and thus are ions, they form strong ionic bonds. Ionic bonding occurs when a metal bonds with a nonmetal. The other principal type of bond is a covalent bond, in which two uncharged atoms share eight valence electrons. If the electronegativity values of the two elements involved are equal, then they share the electrons equally; but if one element has a higher electronegativity value, the electrons will be more drawn to that element.
The electronegativity of carbon is certainly not the highest on the periodic table. That distinction belongs to fluorine, with an electronegativity value of 4.0, which makes it the most reactive of all elements. Fluorine is at the head of Group 7, the halogens, all of which are highly reactive and most of which have high electronegativity values. If one ignores the noble gases, which are virtually unreactive and occupy the extreme right-hand side of the periodic table, electronegativity values are highest in the upper right-hand side of the table—the location of fluorine—and lowest in the lower left. In other words, the value increases with group or column number (again, leaving out the noble gases in Group 8), and decreases with period or row number.
With an electronegativity of 2.5, carbon ties with sulfur and iodine (a halogen) for sixth place, behind only fluorine; oxygen (3.5); nitrogen and chlorine (3.0); and bromine (2.8). Thus its electronegativity is high, without being too high. Fluorine is not likely to form the long chains for which is carbon is known, simply because its electronegativity is so high, it overpowers other elements with which it comes into contact. In addition, with four valence electrons, carbon is ideally suited to find other elements (or other carbon atoms) for forming covalent bonds according to the octet rule, whereby most elements bond so that they have eight valence electrons.

Carbon’s Multiple Bonds

Carbon—with its four valence electrons—happens to be tetravalent, or capable of bonding to four other atoms at once. It is not necessarily the case that an element has the ability to bond with as many other elements as it has valence electrons; in fact, this is rarely the case. Additionally, carbon is capable of forming not only a single bond, with one pair of shared valence electrons, but a double bond (two pairs) or even a triple bond (three pairs.)
Another special property of carbon is its ability to bond in long chains that constitute strings of carbons and other atoms. Furthermore, though sometimes carbon forms a typical molecule (for example, carbon dioxide, or CO2, is just one carbon atom with two oxygens), it is also capable of forming “molecules” that are really not molecules in the way that the word is typically used in chemistry. Graphite, for instance, is just a series of “sheets” of carbon atoms bonded tightly in a hexagonal, or six-sided, pattern, while a diamond is simply a huge “molecule” composed of carbon atoms strung together by covalent bonds.

Organic Chemistry

Organic chemistry is the study of carbon, its compounds, and their properties. The only major carbon compounds considered inorganic are carbonates (for instance, calcium carbonate, alluded to above, which is one of the major forms of mineral on Earth) and oxides, such as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. This leaves a huge array of compounds to be studied, as we shall see.
The term “organic” in everyday language connotes “living,” but organic chemistry is involved with plenty of compounds not part of living organisms: petroleum, for instance, is an organic compound that ultimately comes from the decayed bodies of organisms that once were alive. It should be stressed that organic compounds do not have to be produced by living things, or even by things that once were alive; they can be produced artificially in a laboratory.
The breakthrough event in organic chemistry came in 1828, when German chemist Friedrich Wohler (1800-1882) heated a sample of ammonium cyanate (NH4OCN) and converted it to urea (H2N-CO-NH2). Ammonium cyan-ite is an inorganic material, whereas urea, a waste product in the urine of mammals, is an organic one. “Without benefit of a kidney, a bladder, or a
it is virtually impossible for a person in modern America to spend an entire day without coming into contact with at least one, and more likely dozens, of plastic products, all made possible by organic chemistry. Here, a fashion model parades a dress made of PVC.
it is virtually impossible for a person in modern America to spend an entire day without coming into contact with at least one, and more likely dozens, of plastic products, all made possible by organic chemistry. Here, a fashion model parades a dress made of PVC.
dog,” as Wohler later said, he had managed to transform an inorganic substance into an organic one.
Ammonium cyanate and urea are isomers: substances having the same formula, but possessing different chemical properties. Thus they have exactly the same numbers and proportions of atoms, yet these atoms are arranged in different ways. In urea, the carbon forms an organic chain, and in ammonium cyanate, it does not. Thus, to reduce the specifics of organic chemistry even further, this discipline can be said to constitute the study of carbon chains, and ways to rearrange them to create new substances.


Organic Chemistry and Modern Life

At first glance, the term “organic chemistry” might sound like something removed from
Another byproduct of organic chemistry: petroleum jelly.
Another byproduct of organic chemistry: petroleum jelly.
everyday life, but this could not be further from the truth. The reality of the role played by organic chemistry in modern existence is summed up in a famous advertising slogan used by E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company (usually referred to as “du Pont”): “Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry.”
Often rendered simply as “Better Living Through Chemistry,” the advertising campaign made its debut in 1938, just as du Pont introduced a revolutionary product of organic chemistry: nylon, the creation of a brilliant young chemist named Wallace Carothers (1896-1937). Nylon, an example of a polymer (discussed below), started a revolution in plastics that was still unfolding three decades later, in 1967. That was the year of the film The Graduate, which included a famous interchange between the character of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) and an adult named Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke):
• Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you… just one word.
• Benjamin Braddock: Yes, sir.
• Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
• Benjamin Braddock: Yes, sir, I am.
• Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
The meaning of this interchange was that plastics were the wave of the future, and that an intelligent young man such as Ben should invest his energies in this promising new field. Instead, Ben puts his attention into other things, quite removed from “plastics,” and much of the plot revolves around his revolt against what he perceives as the “plastic” (that is, artificial) character of modern life.
In this way, The Graduate spoke for a whole generation that had become ambivalent concerning “better living through chemistry,” a phrase that eventually was perceived as ironic in view of concerns about the environment and the many artificial products that make up modern life. Responding to this ambivalence, du Pont dropped the slogan in the late 1970s; yet the reality is that people truly do enjoy “better living through chemistry”—particularly organic chemistry.

Applications of organic chemistry

What would the world be like without the fruits of organic chemistry? First, it would be necessary to take away all the various forms of rubber, vitamins, cloth, and paper made from organically based compounds. Aspirins and all types of other drugs; preservatives that keep food from spoiling; perfumes and toiletries; dyes and flavorings—all these things would have to go as well.
Synthetic fibers such as nylon—used in everything from toothbrushes to parachutes— would be out of the picture if it were not for the enormous progress made by organic chemistry. The same is true of plastics or polymers in general, which have literally hundreds upon hundreds of applications. Indeed, it is virtually impossible for a person in twenty-first century America to spend an entire day without coming into contact with at least one, and more likely dozens, of plastic products. Car parts, toys, computer housings, Velcro fasteners, PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plumbing pipes, and many more fixtures of modern life are all made possible by plastics and polymers.
Then there is the vast array of petrochemicals that power modern civilization. Best-known among these is gasoline, but there is also coal, still one of the most significant fuels used in electrical power plants, as well as natural gas and various other forms of oil used either directly or indirectly in providing heat, light, and electric power to homes. But the influence of petrochemicals extends far beyond their applications for fuel. For instance, the roofing materials and tar that (quite literally) keep a roof over people’s heads, protecting them from sun and rain, are the product of petrochemicals—and ultimately, of organic chemistry.


Carbon, together with other elements, forms so many millions of organic compounds that even introductory text topics on organic chemistry consist of many hundreds of pages. Fortunately, it is possible to classify broad groupings of organic compounds. The largest and most significant is that class of organic compounds known as hydrocarbons—chemical compounds whose molecules are made up of nothing but carbon and hydrogen atoms.
Every molecule in a hydrocarbon is built upon a “skeleton” composed of carbon atoms, either in closed rings or in long chains. The chains may be straight or branched, but in each case—rings or chains, straight chains or branched ones—the carbon bonds not used in tying the carbon atoms together are taken up by hydrogen atoms.
Theoretically, there is no limit to the number of possible hydrocarbons. Not only does carbon form itself into apparently limitless molecular shapes, but hydrogen is a particularly good partner. It has the smallest atom of any element on the periodic table, and therefore it can bond to one of carbon’s valence electrons without getting in the way of the other three.
There are two basic varieties of hydrocarbon, distinguished by shape: aliphatic and aromatic. The first of these forms straight or branched chains, as well as rings, while the second forms only benzene rings, discussed below. Within the aliphatic hydrocarbons are three varieties: those that form single bonds (alkanes), double bonds (alkenes), and triple bonds (alkynes.)


The alkanes are also known as saturated hydrocarbons, because all the bonds not used to make the skeleton itself are filled to their capacity (that is, saturated) with hydrogen atoms. The formula for any alkane is CnH2n+2, where n is the number of carbon atoms. In the case of a linear, unbranched alkane, every carbon atom has two hydrogen atoms attached, but the two end carbon atoms each have an extra hydrogen.
What follows are the names and formulas for the first eight normal, or unbranched, alka-nes. Note that the first four of these received common names before their structures were known; from C5 onward, however, they were given names with Greek roots indicating the number of carbon atoms (e.g., octane, a reference to “eight.”)
• Methane (CH4)
• Ethane (C2H6)
• Propane (C3H8)
• Butane (C4H10)
• Pentane (C5H12)
• Hexane (C6H14)
• Heptane (C7H16)
• Octane (C8H18)
The reader will undoubtedly notice a number of familiar names on this list. The first four, being the lowest in molecular mass, are gases at room temperature, while the heavier ones are oily liquids. Alkanes even heavier than those on this list tend to be waxy solids, an example being paraffin wax, for making candles. It should be noted that from butane on up, the alkanes have numerous structural isomers, depending on whether they are straight or branched, and these isomers have differing chemical properties.
Branched alkanes are named by indicating the branch attached to the principal chain. Branches, known as substituents, are named by taking the name of an alkane and replacing the suffix with yl—for example, methyl, ethyl, and so on. The general term for an alkane which functions as a substituent is alkyl.
Cycloalkanes are alkanes joined in a closed loop to form a ring-shaped molecule. They are named by using the names above, with cyclo- as a prefix. These start with propane, or rather cyclopropane, which has the minimum number of carbon atoms to form a closed shape: three atoms, forming a triangle.

Alkenes and alkynes

The names of the alkenes, hydrocarbons that contain one or more double bonds per molecule, are parallel to those of the alkanes, but the family ending is -ene. Likewise they have a common formula: CnH2n. Both alkenes and alkynes, discussed below, are unsaturated—in other words, some of the carbon atoms in them are free to form other bonds. Alkenes with more than one double bond are referred to as being polyunsaturated.
As with the alkenes, the names of alkynes (hydrocarbons containing one or more triple bonds per molecule) are parallel to those of the alkanes, only with the replacement of the suffix -yne in place of -ane. The formula for alkenes is CnH2n-2. Among the members of this group are acetylene, or C2H2, used for welding steel. Plastic polystyrene is another important product from this division of the hydrocarbon family.

Aromatic hydrocarbons

Aromatic hydrocarbons, despite their name, do not necessarily have distinctive smells. In fact the name is a traditional one, and today these compounds are defined by the fact that they have benzene rings in the middle. Benzene has a formula C6H6, and a benzene ring is usually represented as a hexagon (the six carbon atoms and their attached hydrogen atoms) surrounding a circle, which represents all the bonding electrons as though they were everywhere in the molecule at once.
In this group are products such as naphthalene, toluene, and dimethyl benzene. These last two are used as solvents, as well as in the synthesis of drugs, dyes, and plastics. One of the more famous (or infamous) products in this part of the vast hydrocarbon network is trinitrotoluene, or TNT. Naphthalene is derived from coal tar, and used in the synthesis of other compounds. A crystalline solid with a powerful odor, it is found in mothballs and various deodorant-disinfectants.


As for petrochemicals, these are simply derivatives of petroleum, itself a mixture of alkanes with some alkenes, as well as aromatic hydrocarbons. Through a process known as fractional distillation, the petrochemicals of the lowest molecular mass boil off first, and those having higher mass separate at higher temperatures.
Among the products derived from the fractional distillation of petroleum are the following, listed from the lowest temperature range (that is, the first material to be separated) to the highest: natural gas; petroleum ether, a solvent; naphtha, a solvent (used for example in paint thinner); gasoline; kerosene; fuel for heating and diesel fuel; lubricating oils; petroleum jelly; paraffin wax; and pitch, or tar. A host of other organic chemicals, including various drugs, plastics, paints, adhesives, fibers, detergents, synthetic rubber, and agricultural chemicals, owe their existence to petrochemicals.
Obviously, petroleum is not just for making gasoline, though of course this is the first product people think of when they hear the word “petroleum.” Not all hydrocarbons in gasoline are desirable. Straight-chain or normal heptane, for instance, does not fire smoothly in an internal-combustion engine, and therefore disrupts the engine’s rhythm. For this reason, it is given a rating of zero on a scale of desirability, while octane has a rating of 100. This is why gas stations list octane ratings at the pump: the higher the presence of octane, the better the gas is for one’s automobile.

Hydrocarbon Derivatives

With carbon and hydrogen as the backbone, the hydrocarbons are capable of forming a vast array of hydrocarbon derivatives by combining with other elements. These other elements are arranged in functional groups—an atom or group of atoms whose presence identifies a specific family of compounds. Below we will briefly discuss some of the principal hydrocarbon derivatives, which are basically hydrocarbons with the addition of other molecules or single atoms.
Alcohols are oxygen-hydrogen molecules wedded to hydrocarbons. The two most important commercial types of alcohol are methanol, or wood alcohol; and ethanol, which is found in alcoholic beverages, such as beer, wine, and liquor. Though methanol is still known as “wood alcohol,” it is no longer obtained by heating wood, but rather by the industrial hydrogenation of carbon monoxide. Used in adhesives, fibers, and plastics, it can also be applied as a fuel. Ethanol, too, can be burned in an internal-combustion engine, when combined with gasoline to make gasohol. Another significant alcohol is cholesterol, found in most living organisms. Though biochemically important, cholesterol can pose a risk to human health.
Aldehydes and ketones both involve a double-bonded carbon-oxygen molecule, known as a carbonyl group. In a ketone, the carbonyl group bonds to two hydrocarbons, while in an aldehyde, the carbonyl group is always at the end of a hydrocarbon chain. Therefore, instead of two hydrocarbons, there is always a hydrocarbon and at least one other hydrogen bonded to the carbon atom in the carbonyl. One prominent example of a ketone is acetone, used in nail polish remover. Aldehydes often appear in nature—for instance, as vanillin, which gives vanilla beans their pleasing aroma. The ketones carvone and camphor impart the characteristic flavors of spearmint leaves and caraway seeds.

Carboxylic acids and esters

Carboxylic acids all have in common what is known as a carboxyl group, designated by the symbol -COOH. This consists of a carbon atom with a double bond to an oxygen atom, and a single bond to another oxygen atom that is, in turn, wedded to a hydrogen. All carboxylic acids can be generally symbolized by RCOOH, with R as the standard designation of any hydrocarbon. Lactic acid, generated by the human body, is a carboxylic acid: when a person overexerts, the muscles generate lactic acid, resulting in a feeling of fatigue until the body converts the acid to water and carbon dioxide. Another example of a carboxylic acid is butyric acid, responsible in part for the smells of rancid butter and human sweat.
When a carboxylic acid reacts with an alcohol, it forms an ester. An ester has a structure similar to that described for a carboxylic acid,with a few key differences. In addition to its bonds (one double, one single) with the oxygen atoms, the carbon atom is also attached to a hydrocarbon, which comes from the carboxylic acid. Furthermore, the single-bonded oxygen atom is attached not to a hydrogen, but to a second hydrocarbon, this one from the alcohol. One well-known ester is acetylsalicylic acid—better known as aspirin. Esters, which are a key factor in the aroma of various types of fruit, are often noted for their pleasant smell.


Polymers are long, stringy molecules made of smaller molecules called monomers. They appear in nature, but thanks to Carothers—a tragic figure, who committed suicide a year before Nylon made its public debut—as well as other scientists and inventors, synthetic polymers are a fundamental part of daily life.
The structure of even the simplest polymer, polyethylene, is far too complicated to discuss in ordinary language, but must be represented by chemical symbolism. Indeed, polymers are a subject unto themselves, but it is worth noting here just how many products used today involve polymers in some form or another.
Polyethylene, for instance, is the plastic used in garbage bags, electrical insulation, bottles, and a host of other applications. A variation on polyethylene is Teflon, used not only in nonstick cookware, but also in a number of other devices, such as bearings for low-temperature use. Polymers of various kinds are found in siding for houses, tire tread, toys, carpets and fabrics, and a variety of other products far too lengthy to enumerate.


Alkanes: Hydrocarbons that form single bonds. Alkanes are also called saturated hydrocarbons.
Alkenes: Hydrocarbons that form double bonds.
Alkyl: A general term for an alkane that functions as a substituent. alkynes: Hydrocarbons that form triple bonds.
Allotropes: Different versions of the same element, distinguished by molecular structure.
Amorphous: Having no definite structure.
Covalent bonding: A type of chemical bonding in which two atoms share valence electrons. crystalline: A term describing a type of solid in which the constituent parts have a simple and definite geometric arrangement repeated in all directions. double bond: A form of bonding in which two atoms share two pairs of valence electrons. Carbon is also capable of single bonds and triple bonds.
Electronegativity: The relative ability of an atom to attract valence electrons.
Functional groups: An atom or group of atoms whose presence identifies a specific family of compounds. hydrocarbon: Any chemical compound whose molecules are made up of nothing but carbon and hydrogen atoms.
Hydrocarbon derivatives: Families of compounds formed by the joining of hydrocarbons with various functional groups.
Isomers: Substances having the same chemical formula, but that are different chemically due to disparities in the arrangement of atoms.
Octet rule: A term describing the distribution of valence electrons that takes place in chemical bonding for most elements, which end up with eight valence electrons.
Organic chemistry: The study of carbon, its compounds, and their properties. (Some carbon-containing compounds, most notably oxides and carbonates, are not considered organic.)
Saturated: A term describing a hydrocarbon in which each carbon is already bound to four other atoms. Alkanes are saturated hydrocarbons. single bond: A form of bonding in which two atoms share one pair of valence electrons. Carbon is also capable of double bonds and triple bonds.
Substituents: Branches of alkanes, named by taking the name of an alkane and replacing the suffix with yl—for example, methyl, ethyl, and so on.
Tetravalent: Capable of bonding to four other elements. triple bond: A form of bonding in which two atoms share three pairs of valence electrons. Carbon is also capable of single bonds and double bonds.
Unsaturated: A term describing a hydrocarbon in which the carbons involved in a multiple bond (a double bond or triple bond) are free to bond with other atoms. Alkenes and alkynes are both unsaturated.
Valence electrons: Electrons that occupy the highest principal energy level in an atom. These are the electrons involved in chemical bonding.

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