Any of a class of organic compounds composed only of carbon and hydrogen. The carbon atoms form the framework, and the hydrogen atoms attach to them. Hydrocarbons, the principal constituents of petroleum and natural gas, serve as fuels, lubricants, and raw materials for production of plastics, fibres, rubbers, solvents, explosives, and industrial chemicals. All burn to carbon dioxide and water with enough oxygen or to carbon monoxide without it. The two major categories are aliphatic, with the carbon atoms in straight or branched chains or in nonaromatic rings, and aromatic (see aromatic compound). Aliphatic compounds may be saturated (paraffins) or, if any carbon atoms are joined by double or triple bonds, unsaturated (e.g., olefins, alkenes, alkynes). All but the simplest hydrocarbons have isomers (see isomerism). Ethylene, methane, acetylene, benzene, toluene, and naphthalene are hydrocarbons.
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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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.