In chemistry, a hydrocarbon is any chemical compound that consists only of the elements carbon (C) and hydrogen (H). They all contain a carbon backbone, called a carbon skeleton, and have hydrogen atoms attached to that backbone. (Often the term is used as a shortened form of the term aliphatic hydrocarbon.)

Hydrocarbons are refined at oil refineries and processed at chemical plants


The simplest hydrocarbon is methane (swamp/marsh gas), a hydrocarbon with one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms: CH4. Ethane is a hydrocarbon (more specifically, an alkane) consisting of two carbon atoms held together with a single bond, each with three hydrogen atoms bonded: C2H6. Propane has three carbon atoms (C3H8) and butane has four carbons (C4H10).


Liquid geologically-extracted hydrocarbons are referred to as petroleum (literally "rock oil") or mineral oil, while gaseous geologic hydrocarbons are referred to as natural gas. All are significant sources of fuel and raw materials as a feedstock for the production of organic chemicals and are commonly found in the Earth´s subsurface using the tools of petroleum geology.

Oil reserves in sedimentary rocks are the principal source of hydrocarbons for the energy, transport and chemicals industries. The extraction of liquid hydrocarbon fuel from a number of sedimentary basins has been integral to modern energy development.

Hydrocarbons are of prime economic importance because they encompass the constituents of the major fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, natural gas, etc.) and biofuels, as well as plastics, paraffin, waxes, solvents and oils. In urban pollution, these components—along with NOx and sunlight—all contribute to the formation of tropospheric ozone.

The concentration of hydrocarbon vapours can be harmful if inhaled.

Burning Hydrocarbons[]

See also

Flue gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion

Hydrocarbons are one of Earth's most important natural resources. Hydrocarbons are currently the main source of the world’s electric energy and heat sources (such as home heating) because of the energy produced when burnt. Hydrocarbons are all substances with low entropy (meaning they hold a lot of energy potential), which can be released and harnessed by burning them. Often this energy is used directly as heat such as in home heaters, which use either oil or natural gas. The hydrocarbon is burnt and the heat is used to heat water, which is then circulated in pipes around the building heating every room. A similar principle is used to create electric energy in power plants. Hydrocarbons (usually coal) are burnt and the energy released in this way is used to turn water in to steam, which is used to turn a turbine that generates energy.

In an ideal reaction the waste would be only water and carbon dioxide but because the coal is not pure or clean there are often many toxic byproducts such as mercury and arsenic. Also, incomplete combustion causes the production of carbon-monoxide which is toxic because it will bind with hemoglobin more readily than oxygen, so if it is breathed in oxygen can not be absorbed, causing suffocation. Also, incomplete combustion has a biproduct of carbon in the form of soot.

See also[]

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