What is Methane? - Reactions & Formula

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  • 0:00 What Is Methane?
  • 0:57 Bonding Basics
  • 2:03 Fundamental Reactions
  • 3:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nathan Crawford

Nathan, a PhD chemist, has taught chemistry and physical science courses.

Methane, the simplest of organic compounds, is the subject of this lesson. The basic structure, bonding, and two fundamental chemical reactions are presented in this lesson.

What Is Methane?

What do the gases of decomposing plants, natural gas, and the atmosphere of Saturn's moon, Titan, all have in common? Give up? They all contain methane!

Methane is a colorless, odorless, highly flammable gas at room temperature and can be found in a wide variety of sources on Earth. On Earth methane can be found as a major component of natural gas that is stored in the earth's crust. Methane is also a common by-product of the decomposition of biological matter, such as decaying plants or animals.

Earth, however, is not the sole location where methane can be found in the universe. Methane is present in the vast reaches of interstellar space as well as solar systems beyond our own. Many planets in our solar system, including Venus, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, contain significant amounts of methane in their atmospheres. In fact, the recent Cassini mission to Saturn's moon, Titan, uncovered large bodies of liquid methane mixed with other similar compounds.

Bonding Basics

Methane is classified as an organic compound, a substance composed of mainly carbon and hydrogen. In fact, methane is a compound that is made exclusively of carbon and hydrogen, or a hydrocarbon. With a formula of CH4, that is, four hydrogen atoms bonded to a single carbon atom, methane is the simplest of the hydrocarbons, a group also referred to as the alkanes.

The chemical bonds found within methane are classified as covalent bonds. A covalent bond is formed when two or more atoms share one or more electrons located in the outermost energy level, also known as the valenceshell. The valence electrons from each donor atom form pairs through overlap of their electron clouds to create a covalent bond.

For methane the covalent bonds form from the sharing of a single electron from each hydrogen with the four unpaired valence electrons of a single carbon atom. The hydrogen atoms are arranged around the central carbon atom in a geometry known as a tetrahedral geometry. Tetrahedral geometry means that, if you drew a line to connect three hydrogen atoms on the same side of the molecule, you would have a pyramid with four triangular faces.

Fundamental Reactions

Even though methane is involved in a wide variety of reactions, two reactions in particular are of fundamental importance, combustion and halogenation. Combustion of methane by industrial sources or when mixed with other hydrocarbons in natural gas is used extensively within industry to generate electrical power and within homes to generate heat. Halogenation involves the addition of a halogen, one of the elements found in Group 17 of the periodic table, to produce compounds known as methyl halides. The products of halogenation are used in the production of everything from plastics to pharmaceuticals. Let's look at both of these a little more closely.

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