A Brief Overview of Hydrocarbons and Their Place in Modern Society


As their name suggests, hydrocarbons are simple organic compounds which are comprised of only hydrogen and carbon. These are also naturally occurring chemicals. They can be found in crude oil and within decomposing matter. One interesting physical property is that hydrocarbons can take on numerous forms. They are found as liquids, gases, waxes, polymers and solids with a low melting point. Some examples of familiar hydrocarbons include (but are certainly not limited to) methane, ethane, benzene, polystyrene and even paraffin wax. However, hydrocarbons are not only found on earth. Scientists have detected their presence within comets and asteroids while recent evidence suggests they exist on other planets including Titan (a moon of Saturn), Mars and Neptune.

The sheer abundance of hydrocarbons has enabled them to become very useful within our modern society. Their primary purpose is a source of combustion. Some illustrations of this are:

  • The use of methane to heat a stove.

  • Bottles of liquid propane.

  • Fuel to power a motor vehicle.

  • The butane commonly found within a hand-held lighter.

Hydrocarbons have other applications as well. They are utilised within many chemistry laboratories as a solvent to break down other compounds and they can also be adapted as lubricants (frequently needed within engines and other mechanisms with complex moving parts). Perhaps the most ubiquitous use can be seen in the asphalt found upon motorways throughout the world.

Potential Dangers

Of course, one of the most common dangers of certain compounds such as benzene, methane and pentane is that they are very volatile and can be ignited easily. There have also been instances of hydrocarbon poisoning. This normally occurs through accidental inhalation. This is the reason why artificial scents are frequently added so that detection is possible. The final concern is that the combustion of a hydrocarbon can lead to the release of certain compounds into the atmosphere. These are referred to as greenhouse gases and they have significantly contributed to global warming since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Thus, there tends to be a shift away from hydrocarbon-powered vehicles to "cleaner" systems.

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