[hahy-druh-kahr-buhn, hahy-druh-kahr-]
hydrocarbon, 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.

In organic chemistry, a hydrocarbon is an organic compound consisting entirely of hydrogen and carbon. With relation to chemical terminology, aromatic hydrocarbons or arenes, alkanes, alkenes and alkyne-based compounds composed entirely of carbon or hydrogen are referred to as "pure" hydrocarbons, whereas other hydrocarbons with bonded compounds or impurities of sulphur or nitrogen, are referred to as "impure", and remain somewhat erroneously referred to as hydrocarbons.

Hydrocarbons are referred to as consisting of a "backbone" or "skeleton" composed entirely of carbon and hydrogen and other bonded compounds, and lack a functional group that generally facilitates combustion.

The majority of hydrocarbons found naturally occur in crude oil, where decomposed organic matter provides an abundance of carbon and hydrogen which, when bonded, can catenate to form seemingly limitless chains.

Types of hydrocarbons

The classifications for hydrocarbons defined by IUPAC nomenclature of organic chemistry are as follows:

  1. Saturated hydrocarbons (alkanes) are the most simple of the hydrocarbon species and are composed entirely of single bonds and are saturated with hydrogen; they are the basis of petroleum fuels and are either found as linear or branched species of unlimited number. The general formula for saturated hydrocarbons is CnH2n+2 (assuming non-cyclic structures).
  2. Unsaturated hydrocarbons have one or more double or triple bonds between carbon atoms. Those with one double bond are called alkenes, with the formula CnH2n (assuming non-cyclic structures). Those containing triple bonds are called alkynes, with general formula CnH2n-2.
  3. Cycloalkanes are hydrocarbons containing one or more carbon rings to which hydrogen atoms are attached. The general formula for a saturated hydrocarbon containing one ring is CnH2n
  4. Aromatic hydrocarbons, also known as arenes, are hydrocarbons that have at least one aromatic ring.

Hydrocarbons can be gases (e.g. methane and propane), liquids (e.g. hexane and benzene), waxes or low melting solids (e.g. paraffin wax and naphthalene) or polymers (e.g. polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene).

General properties

Because of differences in molecular structure, the empirical formula remains different between hydrocarbons; in linear, or "straight-run" alkanes, alkenes and alkynes, the amount of bonded hydrogen lessens in alkenes and alkynes due to the "self-bonding" or catenation of carbon preventing entire saturation of the hydrocarbon by the formation of double or triple bonds.

This inherent ability of hydrocarbons to bond to themselves is referred to as catenation, and allows hydrocarbon to form more complex molecules, such as cyclohexane, and in rarer cases, arenes such as benzene. This ability comes from the fact that bond character between carbon atoms is entirely non-polar, in that the distribution of electrons between the two elements is somewhat even due to the same electronegativity values of the elements (~0.30), and does not result in the formation of an electrophile.

Generally, with catenation comes the loss of the total amount of bonded hydrocarbons and an increase in the amount of energy required for bond cleavage due to strain exerted upon the molecule; in molecules such as cyclohexane, this is referred to as ring strain, and occurs due to the "destabilized" spatial electron configuration of the atom.

In simple chemistry, as per valence bond theory, the carbon atom must follow the "4-hydrogen rule", which states that the maximum number of atoms available to bond with carbon is equal to the number of electrons that are attracted into the outer shell of carbon. In terms of shells, carbon consists of an incomplete outer shell, which comprises 4 electrons, and thus has 4 electrons available for covalent or dative bonding.

Some hydrocarbons also are abundant in the solar system. Lakes of liquid methane and ethane have been found on Titan, Saturn's largest moon, confirmed by the Cassini-Huygens Mission.

Simple hydrocarbons and their variations

Number of
carbon atoms
Alkane Alkene Alkyne Cycloalkane Alkadiene
1 Methane
2 Ethane Ethene Ethyne
3 Propane Propene Propyne Cyclopropane Allene
4 Butane
Butene Butyne Cyclobutane
5 Pentane
Pentene Pentyne Cyclopentane Pentadiene
6 Hexane Hexene Hexyne Cyclohexane Hexadiene
7 Heptane Heptene Heptyne Cycloheptane
8 Octane Octene Octyne Cyclooctane Octadiene
9 Nonane Nonene Nonyne Cyclononane Nonadiene
10 Decane Decene Decyne Cyclodecane Decadiene


Hydrocarbons are one of the Earth's most important energy resources. The predominant use of hydrocarbons is as a combustible fuel source.

Mixtures of volatile hydrocarbons are now used in preference to the chlorofluorocarbons as a propellant for aerosol sprays, due to chlorofluorocarbons impact on the ozone layer.

Methane [1C] and ethane [2C] are gaseous at ambient temperatures and cannot be readily liquified by pressure alone. Propane [3C] is however easily liquified, and exists in 'propane bottles' mostly as a liquid. Butane [4C] is so easily liquified that it provides a safe, volatile fuel for small pocket lighters. Pentane [5C] is a clear liquid at room temperature, commonly used in chemistry and industry as a powerful nearly odorless solvent of waxes and high molecular weight organic compounds, including greases. Hexane [6C] is also a widely used non-polar, non-aromatic solvent, as well as a significant fraction of common gasoline.

The [6C] through [10C] alkanes, alkenes and isomeric cycloalkanes are the top components of gasoline, naptha, jet fuel and specialized industrial solvent mixtures. With the progressive addition of carbon units, the simple non-ring structured hydrocarbons have higher viscosities, lubricating indices, boiling points, solidification temperatures, and deeper color. At the opposite extreme from [1C] methane lie the heavy tars that remain as the lowest fraction in a crude oil refining retort. They are collected and widely utilized as roofing compounds, pavement composition, wood preservatives (the creosote series) and as extremely high viscosity sheer-resisting liquids.

Burning hydrocarbons

Hydrocarbons are currently the main source of the world’s electric energy and heat sources (such as home heating) because of the energy produced when burnt. Often this energy is used directly as heat such as in home heaters, which use either oil or natural gas. The hydrocarbon is burnt and the heat is used to heat water, which is then circulated. A similar principle is used to create electric energy in power plants.

As methane only releases one carbon dioxide (CO2) for two water molecules (H2O), it is considered the cleanest fuel.


Liquid geologically-extracted hydrocarbons are referred to as petroleum (literally "rock oil") or mineral oil, while gaseous geologic hydrocarbons are referred to as natural gas. All are significant sources of fuel and raw materials as a feedstock for the production of organic chemicals and are commonly found in the Earth's subsurface using the tools of petroleum geology.

The extraction of liquid hydrocarbon fuel from a number of sedimentary basins has been integral to modern energy development. Hydrocarbons are mined from tar sands, oil shale and potentially extracted from sedimentary methane hydrates. These reserves require distillation and upgrading to produce synthetic crude and petroleum.

Oil reserves in sedimentary rocks are the principal source of hydrocarbons for the energy, transport and petrochemical industries.

Hydrocarbons are of prime economic importance because they encompass the constituents of the major fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, natural gas, etc.) and its derivatives plastics, paraffin, waxes, solvents and oils. In urban pollution, these components--along with NOx and sunlight--all contribute to the formation of tropospheric ozone and greenhouse gases.

See also



  1. McMurry, J. (2000). Organic Chemistry 5th ed. Brooks/Cole: Thomson Learning.
  2. Clayden, J., Greeves, N., et al. (2000) Organic Chemistry Oxford.

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