Organic Chemistry - Real-life applications
O RGANIC C HEMISTRY AND M ODERN L IFE
At first glance, the term "organic chemistry" might sound like something removed from
Often rendered simply as "Better Living Through Chemistry," the advertising campaign made its debut in 1938, just as du Pont introduced a revolutionary product of organic chemistry: nylon, the creation of a brilliant young chemist named Wallace Carothers (1896-1937). Nylon, an example of a polymer (discussed below), started a revolution in plastics that was still unfolding three decades later, in 1967. That was the year of the film The Graduate , which included a famous interchange between the character of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) and an adult named Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke):
- Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you… just one word.
- Benjamin Braddock: Yes, sir.
- Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
- Benjamin Braddock: Yes, sir, I am.
- Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
The meaning of this interchange was that plastics were the wave of the future, and that an intelligent young man such as Ben should invest his energies in this promising new field. Instead, Ben puts his attention into other things, quite removed from "plastics," and much of the plot revolves around his revolt against what he perceives as the "plastic" (that is, artificial) character of modern life.
In this way, The Graduate spoke for a whole generation that had become ambivalent concerning "better living through chemistry," a phrase that eventually was perceived as ironic in view of concerns about the environment and the many artificial products that make up modern life. Responding to this ambivalence, du Pont dropped the slogan in the late 1970s; yet the reality is that people truly do enjoy "better living through chemistry"—particularly organic chemistry.
APPLICATIONS OF ORGANIC CHEMISTRY.
What would the world be like without the fruits of organic chemistry? First, it would be necessary to take away all the various forms of rubber, vitamins, cloth, and paper made from organically based compounds. Aspirins and all types of other drugs; preservatives that keep food from spoiling; perfumes and toiletries; dyes and flavorings—all these things would have to go as well.
Synthetic fibers such as nylon—used in everything from toothbrushes to parachutes—would be out of the picture if it were not for the enormous progress made by organic chemistry. The same is true of plastics or polymers in general, which have literally hundreds upon hundreds of applications. Indeed, it is virtually impossible for a person in twenty-first century America to spend an entire day without coming into contact with at least one, and more likely dozens, of plastic products. Car parts, toys, computer housings, Velcro fasteners, PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plumbing pipes, and many more fixtures of modern life are all made possible by plastics and polymers.
Then there is the vast array of petrochemicals that power modern civilization. Best-known among these is gasoline, but there is also coal, still one of the most significant fuels used in electrical power plants, as well as natural gas and various other forms of oil used either directly or indirectly in providing heat, light, and electric power to homes. But the influence of petrochemicals extends far beyond their applications for fuel. For instance, the roofing materials and tar that (quite literally) keep a roof over people's heads, protecting them from sun and rain, are the product of petrochemicals—and ultimately, of organic chemistry.
Carbon, together with other elements, forms so many millions of organic compounds that even introductory textbooks on organic chemistry consist of many hundreds of pages. Fortunately, it is possible to classify broad groupings of organic compounds. The largest and most significant is that class of organic compounds known as hydrocarbons—chemical compounds whose molecules are made up of nothing but carbon and hydrogen atoms.
Every molecule in a hydrocarbon is built upon a "skeleton" composed of carbon atoms, either in closed rings or in long chains. The chains may be straight or branched, but in each case—rings or chains, straight chains or branched ones—the carbon bonds not used in tying the carbon atoms together are taken up by hydrogen atoms.
Theoretically, there is no limit to the number of possible hydrocarbons. Not only does carbon form itself into apparently limitless molecular shapes, but hydrogen is a particularly good partner. It has the smallest atom of any element on the periodic table, and therefore it can bond to one of carbon's valence electrons without getting in the way of the other three.
There are two basic varieties of hydrocarbon, distinguished by shape: aliphatic and aromatic. The first of these forms straight or branched chains, as well as rings, while the second forms only benzene rings, discussed below. Within the aliphatic hydrocarbons are three varieties: those that form single bonds (alkanes), double bonds (alkenes), and triple bonds (alkynes.)
The alkanes are also known as saturated hydrocarbons, because all the bonds not used to make the skeleton itself are filled to their capacity (that is, saturated) with hydrogen atoms. The formula for any alkane is C n H 2n+2 , where n is the number of carbon atoms. In the case of a linear, unbranched alkane, every carbon atom has two hydrogen atoms attached, but the two end carbon atoms each have an extra hydrogen.
What follows are the names and formulas for the first eight normal, or unbranched, alkanes. Note that the first four of these received common names before their structures were known; from C 5 onward, however, they were given names with Greek roots indicating the number of carbon atoms (e.g., octane, a reference to "eight.")
- Methane (CH 4 )
- Ethane (C 2 H 6 )
- Propane (C 3 H 8 )
- Butane (C 4 H 10 )
- Pentane (C 5 H 12 )
- Hexane (C 6 H 14 )
- Heptane (C 7 H 16 )
- Octane (C 8 H 18 )
The reader will undoubtedly notice a number of familiar names on this list. The first four, being the lowest in molecular mass, are gases at room temperature, while the heavier ones are oily liquids. Alkanes even heavier than those on this list tend to be waxy solids, an example being paraffin wax, for making candles. It should be noted that from butane on up, the alkanes have numerous structural isomers, depending on whether they are straight or branched, and these isomers have differing chemical properties.
Branched alkanes are named by indicating the branch attached to the principal chain. Branches, known as substituents, are named by taking the name of an alkane and replacing the suffix with yl—for example, methyl, ethyl, and so on. The general term for an alkane which functions as a substituent is alkyl.
Cycloalkanes are alkanes joined in a closed loop to form a ring-shaped molecule. They are named by using the names above, with cyclo-as a prefix. These start with propane, or rather cyclopropane, which has the minimum number of carbon atoms to form a closed shape: three atoms, forming a triangle.
ALKENES AND ALKYNES.
The names of the alkenes, hydrocarbons that contain one or more double bonds per molecule, are parallel to those of the alkanes, but the family ending is-ene. Likewise they have a common formula: C n H 2n . Both alkenes and alkynes, discussed below, are unsaturated—in other words, some of the carbon atoms in them are free to form other bonds. Alkenes with more than one double bond are referred to as being polyunsaturated.
As with the alkenes, the names of alkynes (hydrocarbons containing one or more triple bonds per molecule) are parallel to those of the alkanes, only with the replacement of the suffix -yne in place of-ane. The formula for alkenes is C n H 2n-2 . Among the members of this group are acetylene, or C 2 H 2 , used for welding steel. Plastic polystyrene is another important product from this division of the hydrocarbon family.
Aromatic hydrocarbons, despite their name, do not necessarily have distinctive smells. In fact the name is a traditional one, and today these compounds are defined by the fact that they have benzene rings in the middle. Benzene has a formula C 6 H 6 , and a benzene ring is usually represented as a hexagon (the six carbon atoms and their attached hydrogen atoms) surrounding a circle, which represents all the bonding electrons as though they were everywhere in the molecule at once.
In this group are products such as naphthalene, toluene, and dimethyl benzene. These last two are used as solvents, as well as in the synthesis of drugs, dyes, and plastics. One of the more famous (or infamous) products in this part of the vast hydrocarbon network is trinitrotoluene, or TNT. Naphthalene is derived from coal tar, and used in the synthesis of other compounds. A crystalline solid with a powerful odor, it is found in mothballs and various deodorant-disinfectants.
As for petro-chemicals, these are simply derivatives of petroleum, itself a mixture of alkanes with some alkenes, as well as aromatic hydrocarbons. Through a process known as fractional distillation, the petrochemicals of the lowest molecular mass boil off first, and those having higher mass separate at higher temperatures.
Among the products derived from the fractional distillation of petroleum are the following, listed from the lowest temperature range (that is, the first material to be separated) to the highest: natural gas; petroleum ether, a solvent; naphtha, a solvent (used for example in paint thinner); gasoline; kerosene; fuel for heating and diesel fuel; lubricating oils; petroleum jelly; paraffin wax; and pitch, or tar. A host of other organic chemicals, including various drugs, plastics, paints, adhesives, fibers, detergents, synthetic rubber, and agricultural chemicals, owe their existence to petrochemicals.
Obviously, petroleum is not just for making gasoline, though of course this is the first product people think of when they hear the word "petroleum." Not all hydrocarbons in gasoline are desirable. Straight-chain or normal heptane, for instance, does not fire smoothly in an internal-combustion engine, and therefore disrupts the engine's rhythm. For this reason, it is given a rating of zero on a scale of desirability, while octane has a rating of 100. This is why gas stations list octane ratings at the pump: the higher the presence of octane, the better the gas is for one's automobile.
H YDROCARBON D ERIVATIVES
With carbon and hydrogen as the backbone, the hydrocarbons are capable of forming a vast array of hydrocarbon derivatives by combining with other elements. These other elements are arranged in functional groups—an atom or group of atoms whose presence identifies a specific family of compounds. Below we will briefly discuss some of the principal hydrocarbon derivatives, which are basically hydrocarbons with the addition of other molecules or single atoms.
Alcohols are oxygen-hydrogen molecules wedded to hydrocarbons. The two most important commercial types of alcohol are methanol, or wood alcohol; and ethanol, which is found in alcoholic beverages, such as beer, wine, and liquor. Though methanol is still known as "wood alcohol," it is no longer obtained by heating wood, but rather by the industrial hydrogenation of carbon monoxide. Used in adhesives, fibers, and plastics, it can also be applied as a fuel. Ethanol, too, can be burned in an internal-combustion engine, when combined with gasoline to make gasohol. Another significant alcohol is cholesterol, found in most living organisms. Though biochemically important, cholesterol can pose a risk to human health.
Aldehydes and ketones both involve a double-bonded carbon-oxygen molecule, known as a carbonyl group. In a ketone, the carbonyl group bonds to two hydrocarbons, while in an aldehyde, the carbonyl group is always at the end of a hydrocarbon chain. Therefore, instead of two hydrocarbons, there is always a hydrocarbon and at least one other hydrogen bonded to the carbon atom in the carbonyl. One prominent example of a ketone is acetone, used in nail polish remover. Aldehydes often appear in nature—for instance, as vanillin, which gives vanilla beans their pleasing aroma. The ketones carvone and camphor impart the characteristic flavors of spearmint leaves and caraway seeds.
CARBOXYLIC ACIDS AND ESTERS.
Carboxylic acids all have in common what is known as a carboxyl group, designated by the symbol -COOH. This consists of a carbon atom with a double bond to an oxygen atom, and a single bond to another oxygen atom that is, in turn, wedded to a hydrogen. All carboxylic acids can be generally symbolized by RCOOH, with R as the standard designation of any hydrocarbon. Lactic acid, generated by the human body, is a carboxylic acid: when a person overexerts, the muscles generate lactic acid, resulting in a feeling of fatigue until the body converts the acid to water and carbon dioxide. Another example of a carboxylic acid is butyric acid, responsible in part for the smells of rancid butter and human sweat.
When a carboxylic acid reacts with an alcohol, it forms an ester. An ester has a structure similar to that described for a carboxylic acid, with a few key differences. In addition to its bonds (one double, one single) with the oxygen atoms, the carbon atom is also attached to a hydrocarbon, which comes from the carboxylic acid. Furthermore, the single-bonded oxygen atom is attached not to a hydrogen, but to a second hydrocarbon, this one from the alcohol. One well-known ester is acetylsalicylic acid—better known as aspirin. Esters, which are a key factor in the aroma of various types of fruit, are often noted for their pleasant smell.
Polymers are long, stringy molecules made of smaller molecules called monomers. They appear in nature, but thanks to Carothers—a tragic figure, who committed suicide a year before Nylon made its public debut—as well as other scientists and inventors, synthetic polymers are a fundamental part of daily life.
The structure of even the simplest polymer, polyethylene, is far too complicated to discuss in ordinary language, but must be represented by chemical symbolism. Indeed, polymers are a subject unto themselves, but it is worth noting here just how many products used today involve polymers in some form or another.
Polyethylene, for instance, is the plastic used in garbage bags, electrical insulation, bottles, and a host of other applications. A variation on polyethylene is Teflon, used not only in nonstick cookware, but also in a number of other devices, such as bearings for low-temperature use. Polymers of various kinds are found in siding for houses, tire tread, toys, carpets and fabrics, and a variety of other products far too lengthy to enumerate.
WHERE TO LEARN MORE
Blashfield, Jean F. Carbon. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1999.
"Carbon." Xrefer (Web site). <http://www.xrefer.com/entry/639742> (May 30, 2001).
Chemistry Help Online for Students (Web site). <http://members.tripod.com/chemistryhelp/> May 30, 2001).
Knapp, Brian J. Carbon Chemistry. Illustrated by David Woodroffe. Danbury, CT: Grolier Educational, 1998.
Loudon, G. Marc. Organic Chemistry. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings, 1988.
"Organic Chemistry" (Web site). <http://edie.cprost.sfu.ca/~rhlogan/organic.html> (May 30, 2001).
"Organic Chemistry." Frostburg State University Chemistry Helper (Web site). <http://www.chemhelper.com/> (May 30, 2001).
Sparrow, Giles. Carbon. New York: Benchmark Books, 1999.
Zumdahl, Steven S. Introductory Chemistry: A Foundation, 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.