What is Benzene? - Uses, Structure & Formula

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  • 0:01 Benzene's Structure…
  • 1:49 History of Uses
  • 2:49 Use in Making Other Chemicals
  • 3:25 Benzene in Gasoline
  • 4:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nissa Garcia

Nissa has a masters degree in chemistry and has taught high school science and college level chemistry.

Benzene is one of the most widely used chemicals involved in manufacturing products we use on a daily basis, such as detergents, plastic and rubber. In this lesson, we will learn more about the structure, formula and various uses of benzene.

Benzene's Structure and Formula

The chemical substance benzene might not be a household name, but we encounter it more often than we think. It's involved in various industrial processes to manufacture products we use on a daily basis, like plastics, dyes and glues, to mention a few. It's also a component of gasoline.

Benzene is used to manufacture glue and plastic bottles, and it is a component of gasoline.
Benzene products

Benzene is a liquid that is colorless and flammable, with a sweet and gasoline-like odor. While it is a useful chemical substance, we must remember it is a toxic chemical, and continuous exposure to it can have cancerous effects. This is because benzene is a carcinogen, which means it's a chemical or agent that can potentially cause cancer.

The chemical formula of benzene is C6H6, so it has six carbon (C) atoms and six hydrogen (H) atoms. Its chemical structure can be described as a hexagon ring with alternating double bonds, as shown in this illustration.

Three ways to draw the chemical structure of benzene
Benzene Structure

The chemical structure of benzene shows that for each carbon atom, there is one hydrogen atom. There are three ways to draw the chemical structure of benzene, which you can now see on screen. The illustration on the left (1), shows all the carbon and hydrogen atoms and how they are bonded together. The second illustration, (2), is also another way to draw benzene, where each edge of the hexagon corresponds to each carbon atom in the structure, and the hydrogen bonds are not shown. The third illustration, (3), shows that a circle can be drawn in place of these alternating double bonds.

Because of its chemical formula, C6H6, benzene is classified as a hydrocarbon, which is a compound that consists of only carbon and hydrogen atoms. Its structure and formula reveal benzene to be an aromatic hydrocarbon, which is defined as a compound that is composed of hydrogen and carbon that has alternating double bonds forming a ring.

Benzene's History of Uses

One of the early uses of benzene dates back in the 19th and early 20th centuries. During this period, the odor of benzene was considered pleasant, so it was used as an aftershave. In 1903, Ludwig Roselius, a German coffee merchant, made benzene popular by using it to decaffeinate coffee. Of course, now that we know that benzene is a carcinogen, using it as an aftershave and using it on coffee is definitely something that we do not do anymore.

Ludwig Roselius used benzene to decaffeinate coffee.
Ludwig Roselius

Another early use of benzene was for degreasing metal. However, because it was later known that benzene is carcinogenic and toxic, other chemicals that are less toxic and carcinogenic replaced benzene.

Now, benzene is one of the top 20 most widely used chemicals in the United States. It's still used in many industrial processes to manufacture plastics, lubricants, rubbers, synthetic fibers and dyes. However, its non-industrial uses are limited because benzene is carcinogenic and toxic.

Benzene in Making Other Chemicals

Most of the manufactured benzene is used to produce other chemical substances. However, about 80% of benzene is used to make mainly three chemicals: ethylbenzene, cumene and cyclohexane.

Benzene: used to make other chemical substances
Chemicals from benzene

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