Benzene Derivatives & Compounds

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda has taught high school science for over 10 years. They have a Master's Degree in Cellular and Molecular Physiology from Tufts Medical School and a Master's of Teaching from Simmons College. They also are certified in secondary special education, biology, and physics in Massachusetts.

In this lesson we'll be examining the aromatic class of compounds known as benzene derivatives. From gasoline to household plastics, we'll look at what compounds contain benzene, where they come from and potential risks.

What Are Benzene Compounds?

Although you might not have heard of benzene, chances are that you have come in contact with products made with it everyday. Plastics, detergents, pesticides and even dyes used to color our clothes, food and pharmaceutical products are made with benzene.

Benzene is a special type of compound known as an aromatic ring. They were first named as such due to their sweet smell. A benzene ring has six carbon atoms are arranged in a hexagon with a hydrogen atom attached to each carbon. This geometric arrangement of atoms creates a stable structure due to the sharing of electrons between the carbon atoms.

Structure of benzene
benzene

Benzenes can be combined with other compounds during chemical reactions where new groups replace the hydrogen atoms on some of the carbon atoms in the ring to form benzene derivatives. The resulting molecules are quite versatile and are used in a variety of applications today. Next, we'll look at some of these compounds and the potential risks that come with using benzene.

Ethyl Benzene

Most of the benzene produced each year is funneled into making ethyl benzene. Ethyl benzene replaces one of the hydrogen atoms attached to the ring with an ethyl group. Ethyl benzene is found naturally in coal tar and petroleum, but also is used to make inks, pesticides, paint and other chemicals. However, the main use of ethyl benzene is to make styrene and then polystyrene.

Styrene is used to make latex, synthetic rubber and polystyrene. If you have a rug in your house, take a look at the bottom of it. If you see a rubber backing, chances are it is made with styrene-butadiene rubber, a type of styrene. It's also used for conveyor belts, flooring, wire insulation and even the rubber soles of your shoes.

Now, check out your refrigerator contents and note how many products are covered in plastic or some other type of packaging. Unless they are made of paper, chances are polystyrene is protecting your food. Polystyrene is made from styrene and is a common material in food packaging materials, disposable cups, containers and insulation.

Polystyrene is used in food packaging
plastic packaging

Phenol

Most of us have popped an aspirin at some point to treat a headache, bruise, or other painful ailment. This over the counter pain medication is actually made with a benzene derivative called phenol. Phenol is also used as a starting point to make plastics, explosives, and a common dye used in our clothing and food, called azo dye.

Phenol itself is used as an antiseptic and a disinfectant in household cleaners in low concentrations. In fact, the first antiseptic used in surgery by Joseph Lister (have you ever used the mouthwash Listerine?) in 1865, significantly decreasing the number of mortalities caused by infection.

Aniline

Aniline is a versatile benzene derivative used to make many products, from dyes to explosives, synthetic rubber, photographic chemicals and even drugs. Aniline is used to produce acetaminophen, or tylenol, another over the counter pain medication. Woodworking creates the beautiful furniture we see in our homes, like tables and ornate chairs. Aniline is used to make many colorful finishes for these pieces.

Aniline is used to make many dyes such as fluorescein shown here
aniline dye

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