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What are Hydrocarbons? – Characteristics, Types, Importance, and More

What are Hydrocarbons?

Hydrocarbons are various types of organic compounds. They may have more or less complex, but they are always formed by a skeleton of atoms of carbon (C) and hydrogen (H) and other possible elements.

Each hydrocarbon has its structural patterns since its specific configuration determines its physical and chemical properties, as well as the name of the substance in question. Oil, natural gas and coal are the primary sources of hydrocarbons.

Most hydrocarbons are in the Earth’s interior, buried under layers and layers of rock and soil.

They are the anaerobic decomposition product, under particular conditions, of large amounts of organic matter, which constituted different living beings’ body.

Hydrocarbons are also present in different living beings’ body, under specific forms such as the rubber that rubber trees generate or a set of pigments called carotenes, which some plants have. Also, they can be synthesized in a laboratory with the appropriate raw material.

Given their enormous chemical and energy potential, hydrocarbons are an indispensable part of various industries, including obtaining electrical energy.

Characteristics of Hydrocarbons


Some characteristics of hydrocarbons are:

  • They are mostly carbon and hydrogen and eventual additives of other elements or other radical groups.
  • While their carbon atoms make up the compound’s structure, those of hydrogen in some cases serve as a bridge to keep them together in a particular configuration (shape, structure, orientation).
  • They can have a linear or branched, open or closed framework of molecules.
  • It depends on its ordering and quantity of components, whether it is one hydrocarbon or another.
  • They are highly flammable and have an enormous energy capacity, which makes them an ideal raw material for industrial transformation and obtaining energy.
  • They are primarily toxic and can give off vapours dangerous to health.

Types of Hydrocarbons

Each hydrocarbon has a specific molecular structure.

Since their discovery in the 19th century, hydrocarbons have been classified into two possible criteria: type of structure and bonds between their atoms. According to the first classification, two categories  distinguish:

Acyclic or Open Chain Hydrocarbons

  • They are those whose chain of molecules does not close on itself. In turn, they can divide into linear (line-shaped) or branched (with various branches). For example:

Cyclic or Closed Chain Hydrocarbons

  • They are those whose chain of molecules closes on itself. In turn, they can divide into monocyclic (single cycle) and polycyclic (multiple processes). For example:

Obeying the second classification, instead, we have:

Aromatic Hydrocarbons

  • They have an aromatic ring, that is, a cyclic structure that obeys the so-called Hückel rule, which states that the number of delocalized electrons in an aromatic compound complies with:
  • For example, benzene (C 6 H 6 ) has six delocalized electrons (called pi (𝛑) electrons) in its structure, which implies that n must equal 1.
  • Almost all aromatic hydrocarbons usually derive from benzene (although not always), and the hexagonal structure of benzene is part of many of these aromatic compounds.
  • The name “aromatic” comes from the fact that these compounds initially obtain by breaking down pleasant-smelling chemicals. Some examples of aromatic compounds are:

Aliphatic Hydrocarbons

  • They lack an aromatic ring. Its name comes from the Greek aleiphar, “fat” since they obtain from the decomposition of oils and fats.
  • They classify as saturated (endowed with single atomic bonds) and unsaturated (having at least one multiple, double or triple bond).

Importance of Hydrocarbons


  • Hydrocarbons are incredibly versatile substances since they serve as raw material for obtaining very varied products.
  • Also, they have great energy potential. Their combustion is easy and intense so that they energetically sustain a diverse set of industries, ranging from materials, solvents, fossil fuels to the generation of electricity.
  • Added to that is the fact that their formation took millions of years of slow chemical processes underground.
  • They constitute an essential but non-renewable resource that will one day deplete forever (or at least for a reasonable amount of time. ).
  • Its use should occur under conditions of extreme responsibility.

Derivatives and Applications of Hydrocarbons

Hydrocarbons have a massive set of uses for humans, among which are:

Power Generation

  • Thanks to their enormous combustion capacity, hydrocarbons use as an energy source to generate electricity.
  • This carries out in certain types of power plants, supplies energy to both homes and other industries, and supports our way of life.

The Generation of Fuels

  • Their energy capacity allows them to manufacture various fuels (gasoline, diesel, liquefied natural gas).
  • Power various types of vehicles or power various household appliances, such as heaters, stoves, and heaters that work using gases such as butane or propane.

Obtaining Plastics

  • Different types of plastic and versatile materials can obtain in laboratories from the handling of hydrocarbons.
  • These materials are so cheap, efficient and straightforward to manufacture a massive industry around them.

The Manufacture of Solvents and Other Products

  • Many hydrocarbons are essential components of solvents and solvents, cleaning products, fertilizers, or bitumen.

Environmental Impact of Hydrocarbons

  1. The use of hydrocarbons has its cost, and the environment takes the first impact.
  2. In general, these are toxic substances capable of causing significant ecological damage if dumped in nature, as occurs with oil spills or oil leaks.
  3. Repairing these environmental damages is often costly and time-consuming.
  4. Depending on the hydrocarbon, its release or combustion emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere: gases rich in carbon such as methane (CH4) or carbon dioxide (CO2).
  5. These gases can destroy the planet’s ozone layer and block the escape of energy through the atmosphere, contributing dramatically to global warming and climate change.
  6. The burning of fossil fuels is, in fact, one of the main factors in this global problem.

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