What are hydrocarbons for?

Hydrocarbons are a composition of organic elements that have different mixtures of carbon and hydrogen, appearing in nature as gases, fats, liquids and sometimes in a solid state. The main representative of hydrocarbons is crude oil, in any of its presentations, and natural gas, which has a combination of different hydrocarbons.

Many of the items that are used daily are items that have been obtained from hydrocarbons. It is not only fuel that they provide, since through the petrochemical industry and after being subjected to various transformation processes, it can be produced for example: plastic, detergents, insecticides, products of the pharmaceutical industry, various types of fuel, etc. . In short, hydrocarbons serve as the fundamental energy support for industries and homes.

Importance of hydrocarbon derivatives

Hydrocarbons are arguably the most widely used organic compounds, because they have become the driving force in the Western world. The importance of hydrocarbons lies in how its derivatives are used and the impact it has on people’s daily lives.

For example, hydrocarbons are used particularly as fuel. The components of natural gas (methane, ethane and butane), serve as fuel for internal combustion engines, heating systems, and even for pocket lighters. Now with saturated hydrocarbons you can make organic solvents, transportation fuels and cleaners.

One of the derivatives of petroleum is gasoline, which is very versatile in terms of its use, since it can be used in all types of transport such as light and heavy vehicles, cutters and electric power generators, among others. The heaviest hydrocarbons are used for diesel and jet fuels. While hydrocarbons with larger molecules are used to make lubricants, greases, waxes, asphalt for roads, etc.

Types of hydrocarbons.

These are divided into aliphatic hydrocarbons and aromatic hydrocarbons:

Aliphatic Hydrocarbons:

They are organic compounds made up of carbon and hydrogen with a non-aromatic character. The simplest of this group are the cycloalkanes, called saturated hydrocarbons, which have the ability to form a chain in a linear manner.

However, its structure is constituted only by carbon atoms, which are coupled to each other through simple bonds with the shape similar to a ring. There are compounds that have several rings, called polycyclic compounds.

Aromatic Hydrocarbons

An aromatic hydrocarbon is a reconciled cyclic organic compound where its stability is greater due to the electronic delocalization of π bonds. The name of Aromatic Hydrocarbons was related to a mineral tar product called benzene, and its derivatives.

Benzene (C6H6) is the representative factor of the hydrocarbon branch. It is active in the structure of some drugs such as: acetaminophen, aspirin and ibuprofen. The most important aromatic hydrocarbons contain all vitamins except vitamin C and hormones. As well as all perfumes, dyes and condiments, whether synthetic or natural.

There are aromatic hydrocarbons that are harmful to humans. As is BTEX, toluene, benzene, xylene and ethylbenzene, due to its participation in numerous types of cancer, or alpha-benzopyrene that is housed in tobacco smoke, which is extremely carcinogenic, causing lung cancer.

Aromatic hydrocarbons are divided into: Alkanes, alkenes and alkynes.

  • Hydrocarbons Alkanes: Alkanes are combinations of hydrocarbons that only have carbon and hydrogen atoms. They are also called saturated hydrocarbons, since they do not have pairs or triple bonds, so all their carbons show sp3 hybridization. Solid alkanes are called tars, and their formation is constituted when the more volatile alkanes, such as gases and oil, vaporize.
  • Alkene Hydrocarbons: Alkene hydrocarbons are unsaturated, that is, they have one or more double bonds of the carbon-carbon type in their molecular composition. Therefore, an alkene is considered an alkane that has been deprived of two atoms of the element hydrogen, which results in a double bond between the carbon atoms. Cyclic alkenes are also called cycloalkenes.
  • Alkyne Hydrocarbons: these are aliphatic hydrocarbons that have at least one triple bond between two carbon atoms (with one sigma bond and two pi bonds). The main formula is CnH2n-2, and they are combined metastables, given the high energy of the carbon-carbon triple bond.

Most alkynes are produced in the form of acetylene, and a large part of them is used as fuel in gas welding due to the high temperatures that are achieved.

Hydrocarbon applications

Regarding the applications of hydrocarbons, these can be separated into energy, such as natural gas or gasoline, and those reserved for special products.

Natural gas:

Natural gas is achieving an accelerated importance in various sectors, from industrial to different uses at the domestic level. In recent years work has been done on the use of fuel for transportation. There are already cars that operate with methane or propane gas, these being more profitable and with lower levels of environmental pollution than those that use gasoline or diesel.

As for domestic applications, it is used in cooking and heating. On the other hand, it is widely used in the industrial sector, from metallurgical to glass making.

Liquid fuels:

These can be determined as a type of hydrocarbon that burns when heated and has the presence of oxygen. The most common liquid fuels today are the different types of gasoline, diesel and kerosene. These are used for all machinery or the industrial field and used for electrical generators.

Most cars run on this type of liquid fuel, making it irreplaceable. The disadvantage of using this type of fuel is the environmental pollution they produce.

Manufacture of Plastics

Another important use that is given to hydrocarbons is in the production of plastic. For this purpose, it is necessary to go through a series of processes that originate in the petrochemical industry.

Plastic is one of the materials with the greatest presence in our day to day, due to its durability and how moldable it is to give it multiple shapes. There are three different kinds of plastic derived from their chemical structure and the way they were made:

  • Thermosetting
  • Thermoplastics
  • Polyurethanes.

Soaps and Cosmetics

Although not created, hydrocarbons form an important ingredient in the making of these types of items. The truth is that most soaps, creams and other cosmetic products contain them. The most common or used elements are petroleum and mineral oils. These are widely used in moisturizers and lotions for the smooth feel they provide.

Insecticides and pesticides

Hydrocarbons are one of the elements found in different pesticides and insecticides. Its use dates from the 40s of the last century, when chlorides began to be used to eliminate the different pests that threatened crops, giving rise to products such as DDT or Dieldrin that showed great efficiency in this area.

Hydrocarbon characteristics

Hydrocarbons are characterized by their:

1. Organic molecular structure:

All organic substances whose molecules have carbon atoms are considered, making a bond with other carbon molecules (carbon-carbon bond) and with hydrogen molecules (carbon-hydrogen bond).

Since each hydrocarbon has an individual molecule, they all share in their molecular composition a chain of carbon atoms where one or more hydrogen atoms can be.

2. Saturation:

A substance becomes saturated when all the carbon atoms in its molecular structure are joined to other atoms through a single bond. It is stated that a molecule is saturated because these single bonds cannot be broken and for this reason no more hydrogen atoms can be added.

3. Physical properties:

  • Boiling point: it grows as the size of the alkane (the number of carbon atoms) increases. This originates because the intermolecular forces are when the molecule is larger.
  • Density: this also grows when the molecule is larger.
  • Solubility: it means that they are insoluble in water. Being polar substances, the electric charges of each of the molecules are separated.

4. Chemical properties:

  • Fuels: Hydrocarbons can reach complete oxidation. These begin to oxidize when there is a source of heat or because of oxygen. One of the substances that results from combustion is carbon dioxide. For this reason, hydrocarbons are polluting elements when used as fuel.
  • Pyrolysis: When alkanes are placed at a temperature of 800º they can be decomposed forming alkenes and free hydrogen.
  • Halogenation: With the provision of ultraviolet light, the alkanes act together with the halogens, generating derivatives of the halogens.

5. Uses:

Hydrocarbons are mainly used as:

  • Fuel for urban transport in general and for industrial, aeronautical, etc. use.
  • They are used very well in electric generators.
  • We can also say that it is the raw material for greases and lubricants for vehicles and in the manufacture of asphalt.
  • Hydrocarbons go through a process where they are transformed into all kinds of plastics, nylon, acrylics, paints, gloves, synthetic fibers, adhesives, detergent, insecticides.

6. Degradation:

Hydrocarbons are polluting elements not only because they generate combustion and leave the residues they emit, but also when oil is spilled on land or in water. And despite being organic substances, hydrocarbons are not biodegradable.

To benefit the environment, research has been carried out to try to solve this problem. For this purpose, a composition of bacteria that degrade the hydrocarbon molecules in a chain is used, practically it is a bacterium that manages to break the molecule so that it is eaten by another bacterium.


Most of the hydrocarbons are derived from petroleum. This originates because oil is the result of the decomposition of organic matter and for this reason it provides a high concentration of carbon and hydrogen.

Hydrocarbons, as petroleum derivatives, participate in various industries, from aeronautics to the toy industry. Finally Hydrocarbons are a non-renewable natural resource, and cannot be manufactured by man, so we must put it to good use, since our entire lifestyle depends on them.

Samantha Robson
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Dr. Samantha Robson ( CRN: 0510146-5) is a nutritionist and website content reviewer related to her area of ​​expertise. With a postgraduate degree in Nutrition from The University of Arizona, she is a specialist in Sports Nutrition from Oxford University and is also a member of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

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