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Carbon Chemistry: An Introduction

by Anthony Carpi, Ph.D.

To understand life as we know it, we must first understand a little bit of organic chemistry. Organic molecules contain both carbon and hydrogen. Though many organic chemicals also contain other elements, it is the carbon-hydrogen bond that defines them as organic. Organic chemistry defines life. Just as there are millions of different types of living organisms on this planet, there are millions of different organic molecules, each with different chemical and physical properties. There are organic chemicals that make up your hair, your skin, your fingernails, and so on. The diversity of organic chemicals is due to the versatility of the carbon atom. Why is carbon such a special element? Let's look at its chemistry in a little more detail.

The uniqueness of carbon

Carbon (C) appears in the second row of the periodic table and has four bonding electrons in its valence shell (see our Periodic Table module for more information). Similar to other non-metals, carbon needs eight electrons to satisfy its valence shell. Carbon therefore forms four bonds with other atoms (each bond consisting of one of carbon's electrons and one of the bonding atom's electrons). Every valence electron participates in bonding; thus, a carbon atom's bonds will be distributed evenly over the atom's surface. These bonds form a tetrahedron (a pyramid with a spike at the top), as illustrated below:

Carbon forms 4 bonds

Organic chemicals get their diversity from the many different ways carbon can bond to other atoms. The simplest organic chemicals, called hydrocarbons, contain only carbon and hydrogen atoms; the simplest hydrocarbon (called methane) contains a single carbon atom bonded to four hydrogen atoms:

Methane - a carbon atom bonded to 4 hydrogen atoms 

But carbon can bond to other carbon atoms in addition to hydrogen, as illustrated in the molecule ethane below:

Ethane - a carbon-carbon bond

In fact, the uniqueness of carbon comes from the fact that it can bond to itself in many different ways. Carbon atoms can form long chains:

Hexane - a 6-carbon chain

branched chains:

Isohexane - a branched-carbon chain


Cyclohexane - a ringed hydrocarbon

There appears to be almost no limit to the number of different structures that carbon can form.  To add to the complexity of organic chemistry, neighboring carbon atoms can form double and triple bonds in addition to single carbon-carbon bonds:

Single bonding Double bonding Triple bonding

Keep in mind that each carbon atom forms four bonds. As the number of bonds between any two carbon atoms increases, the number of hydrogen atoms in the molecule decreases (as can be seen in the figures above).

Comprehension Checkpoint

__________ can form long chains, branched chains, and rings.

Simple hydrocarbons

The simplest hydrocarbons are those that contain only carbon and hydrogen. These simple hydrocarbons come in three varieties depending on the type of carbon-carbon bonds that occur in the molecule.


Alkanes are the first class of simple hydrocarbons and contain only carbon-carbon single bonds. The alkanes are named by combining a prefix that describes the number of carbon atoms in the molecule with the root ending "ane". The names and prefixes for the first ten alkanes are given in the following table.

Prefix Alkane
1 Meth Methane CH4 CH4
2 Eth Ethane C2H6 CH3CH3
3 Prop Propane C3H8 CH3CH2CH3
4 But Butane C4H10 CH3CH2CH2CH3
5 Pent Pentane C5H12 CH3CH2CH2CH2CH3
6 Hex Hexane C6H14 ...
7 Hept Heptane C7H16
8 Oct Octane C8H18
9 Non Nonane C9H20
10 Dec Decane C10H22

The chemical formula for any alkane is given by the expression CnH2n+2. The structural formula, shown for the first five alkanes in the table, shows each carbon atom and the elements that are attached to it. This structural formula is important when we begin to discuss more complex hydrocarbons. The simple alkanes share many properties in common. All enter into combustion reactions with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide and water vapor. In other words, many alkanes are flammable. This makes them good fuels. For example, methane is the main component of natural gas, and butane is common lighter fluid.

CH4 + 2O2 CO2 + 2H20
The chemical reaction between a fuel (for example wood) and an oxidizing agent.


The second class of simple hydrocarbons, the alkenes, consists of molecules that contain at least one double-bonded carbon pair. Alkenes follow the same naming convention used for alkanes. A prefix (to describe the number of carbon atoms) is combined with the ending "ene" to denote an alkene. Ethene, for example is the two-carbon molecule that contains one double bond. The chemical formula for the simple alkenes follows the expression CnH2n. Because one of the carbon pairs is double bonded, simple alkenes have two fewer hydrogen atoms than alkanes.



Alkynes are the third class of simple hydrocarbons and are molecules that contain at least one triple-bonded carbon pair. Like the alkanes and alkenes, alkynes are named by combining a prefix with the ending "yne" to denote the triple bond. The chemical formula for the simple alkynes follows the expression CnH2n-2.


Comprehension Checkpoint

The simplest of hydrocarbons are called


Because carbon can bond in so many different ways, a single molecule can have different bonding configurations. Consider the two molecules illustrated here:

C6H14 c-hexane


C6H14 c-isohexane

Both molecules have identical chemical formulas (shown in the left column); however, their structural formulas (and thus some chemical properties) are different. These two molecules are called isomers. Isomers are molecules that have the same chemical formula but different structural formulas.

Comprehension Checkpoint

When molecules have the same number and type of atoms, they must have the same structure.

Functional groups

In addition to carbon and hydrogen, hydrocarbons can also contain other elements. In fact, many common groups of atoms can occur within organic molecules, these groups of atoms are called functional groups. One good example is the hydroxyl functional group. The hydroxyl group consists of a single oxygen atom bound to a single hydrogen atom (-OH). The group of hydrocarbons that contain a hydroxyl functional group is called alcohols. The alcohols are named in a similar fashion to the simple hydrocarbons, a prefix is attached to a root ending (in this case "anol") that designates the alcohol. The existence of the functional group completely changes the chemical properties of the molecule. Ethane, the two-carbon alkane, is a gas at room temperature; ethanol, the two-carbon alcohol, is a liquid.


Ethanol, common drinking alcohol, is the active ingredient in "alcoholic" beverages such as beer and wine.


The chemical basis of all living organisms is linked to the way that carbon bonds with other atoms. This introduction to organic chemistry explains the many ways that carbon and hydrogen form bonds. Basic hydrocarbon nomenclature is described, including alkanes, alkenes, alkynes, and isomers. Functional groups of atoms within organic molecules are discussed.

  • NGSS
  • HS-C6.2, HS-PS1.A3

Anthony Carpi, Ph.D. “Carbon Chemistry” Visionlearning Vol. CHE-2 (4), 2003.