Hydrocarbon Derivatives: Definition & Properties

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth (Nikki) Wyman

Nikki has a master's degree in teaching chemistry and has taught high school chemistry, biology and astronomy.

In this lesson, you'll learn what it means to be a hydrocarbon derivative. In the process, you'll compare them to regular hydrocarbons. By the end you will have discovered some general properties of hydrocarbon derivatives.

What Are Hydrocarbon Derivatives?

Can you imagine life without a refrigerator? Thanks to hydrocarbon derivatives, you don't have to. In the early 1900s, refrigeration technology evolved from chunks of ice to machine powered and chemically cooled systems. And for more than fifty years, the best chemicals for the job were chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, made of chlorine atoms, fluorine atoms and carbon atoms.

Unfortunately for the planet, CFCs are intensely damaging to the ozone layer, which is the layer of O3 molecules high in the atmosphere that protect Earth from powerful ultraviolet rays. A chlorine atom within a single CFC has the power to damage one hundred thousand molecules of ozone before it breaks down. CFCs are still present as refrigerants and aerosols, but luckily the use of them is decreasing.

Let's compare the structure of a simple CFC with an equally simple hydrocarbon and see if we can figure out what a hydrocarbon derivative is.

Simple CFC
CFC structure

As you may recall, a hydrocarbon is a compound made mostly of hydrogen and carbon atoms bonded together through the sharing of electrons. Some classic examples include methane, ethene and benzene. The simplest hydrocarbon, methane, consists of one central carbon atom with four hydrogens bonded to it.

Simple Hydrocarbons
structures of three simple hydrocarbons

One of the simple CFCs, Freon 12, consists of one central carbon atom with two chlorines and two fluorines bonded to it. What similarities do you notice between the two?

Hydrocarbon and CFC
hydrocarbon and CFC structure

In each case, there is a central carbon atom and four bonds extending out if it.

What differences do you notice? Maybe that methane only contains hydrogens and a carbon, while Freon contains chlorine atoms, fluorine atoms and a carbon?

How about comparing methane to another hydrocarbon derivative: methanol? Methanol has a central carbon bonded to three hydrogens and one oxygen. The oxygen is, in turn, bonded to a hydrogen.

Hydrocarbon and Hydrocarbon Derivative
methane and methanol structure

Again, there is a central carbon that has four bonds extending from it.

Notice any patterns yet? Carbons are the central atoms in both cases. A hydrocarbon consists of carbons and hydrogens. Hydrocarbon derivatives contain different elements attached to the carbon instead of only hydrogen.

Perhaps you've had to look up derivatives of Latin words in the English language, or take the derivative of a curved line in calculus. A derivative is something that is based on another source. In our case, hydrocarbon derivatives are based on simple hydrocarbon compounds that contain only hydrogens and carbons.

Hydrocarbon derivatives contain at least one element other than hydrogen or carbon, such as oxygen, nitrogen or one of the halogen atoms (elements in column 7A).

Most of the time, the atoms present in a hydrocarbon derivative are attached as part of a distinct group. These groups are known as functional groups because they affect how the compound behaves. Sometimes functional groups affect physical properties of a compound as well.

Examples of functional groups include alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, amines and esters.

General Properties of Hydrocarbon Derivatives

Hydrocarbon derivatives contain at least one atom that's pretty electronegative. As you may recall, electronegativity is the ability of an atom to draw electrons to itself. This is important, because the electron-hogging element will prevent electrons from being shared evenly across the molecule. When charges are separated within a molecule, the molecule is considered to be polar.

In simpler terms, polar molecules are like little magnets. One side is positive, and the other side is negative! They even stick to each other like little magnets. Being polar makes hydrocarbon derivatives special and separates them from regular hydrocarbons.

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