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Compounds Real Life Applications 3251
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Distinguishing Between Compounds and Mixtures

To continue the analogy used above just one step further, a word is not just a collection of letters; it has to have a meaning. Likewise, the fact that various substances are mixed together does not necessarily make them a compound. Actually, the difference between a word and a mere collection of letters is somewhat greater than the difference between a compound and a mixture—a substance in which elements are not chemically bonded, and in which the composition is variable. A nonsensical string of characters serves no linguistic purpose; on the other hand, mixtures are an integral part of life.

Tea, whether iced or hot, is a mixture. So is coffee, or even wine. In each case, substances are added together and subjected to a process, but the result is not a compound. We know this because the composition varies. Depending on the coffee beans used, for instance, coffee can have a wide variety of flavors. If, in the brewing process, too much coffee is used in proportion to the water, the resulting mixture will be strong or bitter; on the hand, an insufficient coffee-to-water ratio will produce coffee that is too weak.

Note that a number of terms have been used here that, from a scientific standpoint at least, are vague. How weak is "too weak"? That all depends on the tastes of the person making the coffee. But as long as coffee beans and hot water are used, no matter what the proportion, the mixture is still coffee. On the other hand, when two oxygen atoms, rather than one, are chemically combined with two hydrogen atoms, the result is not "strong water." Nor is it "oxygenated water": it is hydrogen peroxide, a substance no one should drink.

Three principal characteristics serve to differentiate a compound from a mixture. First, as we have seen, a compound has a definite and constant composition, whereas a mixture can exist with virtually any proportion between its constituent parts. Second, elements lose their characteristic elemental properties once they form a compound, but the parts of a mixture do not. (For example, when mixed with water, sugar is still sweet.) Third, the formation of a compound involves a chemical reaction, whereas a mixture can be created simply by the physical act of stirring items together.

The Atomic and Molecular Keys

The means by which compounds are formed are discussed numerous times, and in various ways, throughout this book. A few of those particulars will be mentioned briefly below, in relation to the naming of compounds, but for the most part, there will be no attempt to explain the details of the processes involved in chemical bonding. The reader is therefore encouraged to consult the essays on Chemical Bonding and Electrons.

It is important, nonetheless, to recognize that chemists' knowledge is based on their understanding of the atom and the ways that electrons, negatively charged particles in the atom, bring about bonds between elements. Awareness of these specifics emerged only at the beginning of the twentieth century, with the discovery of subatomic particles. Another important threshold had been crossed a century before, with the development of atomic theory by English chemist John Dalton (1766-1844), and of molecular theory by Italian physicist Amedeo Avogadro (1776-1856).

Around the same time, French chemists Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) and Joseph-Louis Proust (1754-1826), respectively, clarified the definitions of "element" and "compound." Until then, the idea of a compound had little precise meaning for chemists, who often used the term to describe a mixture. Thus, French chemist Claude Louis Berthollet (1748-1822) asserted that compounds have variable composition, and for evidence he pointed to the fact that when some metals are heated, they form oxides, in which the percentage of oxygen increases with temperature.

Proust, on the other hand, maintained that compounds must have a constant composition, an argument supported by Dalton's atomic theory. Proust worked to counter Berthollet's positions on a number of particulars, but was still unable to explain why metals form variable alloys, or combinations of metals; no chemist at the time understood that an alloy is a mixture, not a compound.

Nonetheless, Proust was right in his theory of constant composition, and Berthollet was incorrect on this score. With the discovery of subatomic structures, it became possible to develop highly sophisticated theories of chemical bonding, which in turn facilitated understanding of compounds.

Types of Compounds


Though there are millions of compounds, these can be grouped into just a few categories. Organic compounds, of which there are many millions, are compounds containing carbon. The only major groupings of carbon-containing compounds that are not considered organic are carbonates, such as limestone, and oxides, such as carbon dioxide. Organic compounds can be further subdivided into a number of functional groups, such as alcohols. Within the realm of organic compounds, whether natural or artificial, are petroleum and its many products, as well as plastics and other synthetic materials.

The term "organic," as applied in chemistry, does not necessarily refer to living things, since the definition is based on the presence of carbon. Nonetheless, all living organisms are organic, and the biochemical compounds in living things form an important subset of organic compounds. Biochemical compounds are, in turn, divided into four families: carbohydrates, proteins, nucleic acids, and lipids.


Inorganic compounds can be classified according to five major groupings: acids, bases, salts, oxides, and others. An acid is a compound which, when dissolved in water, produces positive ions (atoms with an electric charge) of hydrogen. Bases are substances that produce negatively charged hydroxide (OH ) ions when dissolved in water. An oxide is a compound in which the only negatively charged ion is an oxygen, and a salt is formed by the reaction of an acid with a base. Generally speaking, a salt is any combination of a metal and a nonmetal, and it can contain ions of any element but hydrogen.

The remaining inorganic compounds, classified as "others," are those that do not fit into any of the groupings described above. An important subset of this broad category are the coordination compounds, formed when one or more ions or molecules contributes both electrons necessary for a bonding pair, in order to bond with a metallic ion or atom.

Naming Compounds

In the early days of chemistry as a science, common names were applied to compounds. Water is an example of a common name; so is sugar, as well as salt. These names work well enough in everyday life, and in fact, chemists still refer to water simply as "water." (The only other common name still used in chemistry is ammonia.)

But as the number of compounds discovered and developed by chemists began to proliferate, the need for a systematic means of naming them became apparent. With millions of compounds, it would be nearly impossible to come up with names for every one. Furthermore, common names tell chemists nothing about the chemical properties of a particular substance.

Today, chemists use a system of nomenclature that is rather detailed but fairly easy to understand, once the rules are understood. We will examine this system briefly, primarily as it relates to binary compounds—compounds containing just two elements. Binary compounds are divided into three groups. The first two are ionic compounds, involving metals that form positively charged ions, or cations (pronounced KAT-ieunz). The third consists of compounds that contain only nonmetals. These groups are:

  • Type I: Ionic compounds involving a metal that always forms a cation of a certain electric charge.
  • Type II: Ionic compounds involving a metal (typically a transition metal) that forms cations with differing charges.
  • Type III: Compounds containing only nonmetals.


Cations are represented symbolically thus: H + , or Mg 2+ . The first, a hydrogen cation, has a positive charge of 1, but note that the 1 is not shown—just as the first power of a number is never designated in mathematics. In the second example, a magnesium cation, the superscript number, combined with the plus sign (which can either follow the number, as is shown here, or proceed it) indicates that the atom has a positive charge of two. Thus, even if one were not told that this is a cation, it would be easy enough to discern from the notation.

Anions (AN-ie-unz), or negatively charged ions, are represented in a similar way: H for hydride, an anion of hydrogen; or O 2− for oxide. Note, however, that the naming of anions and cations is different. Cations are always called, for example, a hydrogen cation, or a magnesium cation. On the other hand, names of simple anions (involving a single atom) are formed by taking the root of the element name and adding an -ide: for example, fluoride (F ).


In a binary ionic compound, a metal combines with a nonmetal. The metal loses one or more electrons to become a cation, while the nonmetal gains one or more electrons to become an anion. Thus, table salt is formed by the joining of a cation of the metal sodium (Na + ) and an anion of the nonmetal chlorine (Cl ). Instead of the common name "salt," which can apply to a range of substances, its chemical name is sodium chloride.

In naming Type I binary compounds, of which sodium chloride is an example, the cation is always represented first by the name of the element. The anion follows, with the root name of the element attached to the-ide suffix, as described above. Another example is calcium sulfide, formed by a cation of the metal calcium (Ca 2+ ) and an anion of the nonmetal sulfur (S 2− ).


The chemical nomenclature for type II binary compounds is somewhat more complicated, because they involve metals that can have multiple positive charges. This is particularly true of the transition metals, a family of 40 elements in the middle of the periodic table distinguished from other elements by a number of characteristics. The name "transition" thus implies a break in the even pattern of the periodic table.

Iron (Fe), for instance, is a transition metal, and it can form cations with charges of 2+ or 3+, while copper (Cu) can form cations with charges of 1+ or 2+. When encountering positively charged cations, it is not enough to say, for instance, "iron oxide," or "copper sulfide," because it is not clear which iron cation is involved. To solve the problem, chemists use a system of Roman numerals.

According to this system, the cations referred to above are expressed in the name of a Type II binary compound thus: iron (II), iron (III), copper (I), and copper (II). This is followed with the name of the anion, as before, using the-ide suffix. Note that the Roman numeral is usually the same as the number of positive charges in the cation.

It should be noted, also, that there is an older system for naming Type II binary compounds with terms that incorporate the element name—often the Latin original, reflected in the chemical symbol—with a suffix. For instance, this system uses the word "ferrous" for iron (II) and "ferric" for iron (III). However, this method of nomenclature is increasingly being replaced by the one we have described here.


In a Type III binary compound involving only nonmetals, the first element in the formula is referred to simply by its element name, as though it were a cation, while the second element is given an-ide suffix, as though it were an anion. If there is more than one atom present, prefixes are used to indicate the number of atoms. These prefixes are listed below. It should be noted that mono-is never used for naming the first element in a type III binary compound.

  • mono-: 1
  • di-: 2
  • tri-: 3
  • tetra-: 4
  • penta-: 5
  • hexa-: 6
  • hepta-: 7
  • octa-: 8

Thus CO 2 is called carbon dioxide, indicating one carbon atom and two oxygens. Again, mono-is not used for the first element, but it is used for the second: hence, the name of the compound with the formula CO is carbon monoxide. It is also possible to know the formula for a compound simply from the name: if confronted with a name such as "dinitrogen pentoxide," for instance, it is fairly easy to apply the rules governing these prefixes to discern that the substance is N 2 O 5 . Note that vowels at the end of a prefix are dropped when the name of the element that follows it also begins with a vowel: we say monoxide, not "monooxide"; and pentoxide, not "pentaoxide." This makes pronunciation much easier.


More complicated rules apply for polyatomic ions, which are charged groupings of atoms such as NH 4 NO 3 , or ammonium nitrate. The only way to learn how to name polyatomic ions is by memorizing the names of the constituent parts. In the above example, for instance, the first part of the formula, which has a positive charge, is always called ammonium, while the second part, which has a negative charge, is always called nitrate. A good chemistry textbook should provide a table listing the names of common polyatomic ions.

A number of polyatomic ions are called oxyanions, meaning that they include varying numbers of oxygen atoms combined with atoms of other elements. There are rules for designating the names of these polyatomic ions, some of which are listed in the essay on Ions and Ionization.

Still other rules govern the naming of acids; here again, the operative factor is the presence of oxygen. Thus, if the anion does not contain oxygen, the name of the acid is created by adding the prefix hydro-and the suffix -ic, as in hydrochloric acid. If the anion does contain oxygen, the root name of the principal element is joined to a suffix: depending on the relative numbers of oxygen atoms, this may be -ic or-ous.


As observed much earlier, isomers are like two words with the same letters, but arranged in different ways. Specifically, isomers are chemical compounds having the same formula, but in which the atoms are arranged differently, thereby forming different compounds. There are two principal types of isomer: structural isomers, which differ according to the attachment of atoms on the molecule, and stereoisomers, which differ according to the locations of the atoms in space.

An example of structural isomerism is the difference between propyl alcohol and isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol: these two have differing properties, because their alcohol functional groups are not attached to the same carbon atom in the carbon chain to which the functional group is attached.

In a stereoisomer, on the other hand, atoms are attached in the same order, but have different spatial relationships. If functional groups are aligned on the same side of a double bond between two carbon atoms, this is called a cis isomer, from a Latin word meaning "on this side." If they are on opposite sides, it is called a trans ("across") isomer. Hence the term "trans fats," which are saturated fats that improve certain properties of foods—including taste—but which may contribute to heart disease.


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