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What is Phenol? - Structure & Uses

What is Phenol? - Structure & Uses
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  • 0:01 What is Phenol?
  • 0:33 Properties
  • 1:31 Structure
  • 3:00 Common Uses
  • 4:02 Health Implications
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Danielle Reid

Danielle has taught middle school science and has a doctorate degree in Environmental Health

A type of carbolic acid and aromatic compound, phenol is found in numerous household products, like aspirin and detergent. Use this lesson to gain insight about phenol, understand its structure, and explore its uses.

What Is Phenol?

You wake up with a sore and itchy throat. The first thing you reach for is a bottle of throat spray to relieve those nasty symptoms. But, have you ever wondered what, exactly, is in that throat spray? One active ingredient is phenol, a group of organic compounds whose aromatic ring is bonded to an alcohol group. Now, this family, the phenols, doesn't mind being called a different name: carbolic acid or benzenol. The molecular formula of phenol is C6H5OH.

Properties

The suffix ending -ol in phenol provides a great clue as to what functional group this organic compound belongs to. In chemistry nomenclature, this suffix refers to compounds that contain alcohol (-OH) groups. Phenol is no exception to this rule, as seen by its molecular formula; an alcohol group is present in its structure.

Because phenol contains an alcohol group, it is not only able to form a very strong hydrogen bond with other molecules, but this bond contributes to phenol's affinity towards polar substances. As a polar molecule, phenol is soluble in water. In other words, phenol and water are friends.

Other physical properties of phenol include its physical state of a colorless liquid and its high boiling point. Keep in mind that those strong hydrogen bonds contribute to phenol's higher boiling point. At room temperature, the solid form of phenol is white in color. It is classified as having a sweet odor.

Structure

What does the structure of phenol look like? Shown in diagram 1, you will notice the presence of the alcohol group (-OH) we discussed earlier, as well as an aromatic ring. Aromatic compounds are compounds that form a cyclic ring containing double and single bonds. In phenol, this aromatic compound is referred to as benzene. It is worth noting benzene in phenol's structure because the synthesis of phenol most often begins with the starting use of a benzene molecule.

Diagram 1

For example, as shown in diagram 2, benzene utilizes two intermediates, chlorobenzene and sodium phenoxide, to make our friend phenol. Luckily, there is no need to remember the synthesis of phenol. But, it is very useful for us to learn a little bit about phenol's historical origins in organic chemistry. Although phenol is commonly made in the laboratory using reactions, as shown in diagram 2, sources of phenol are commonly found in nature as well.

Diagram 2
diagram 2

Many of the proteins in our body contain phenol in their chemical structure. The hormone serotonin, which gives us a happy feeling, and epinephrine, what gets our adrenaline pumping, both contain phenols. Even our favorite natural sweetener vanilla bean, derived from a compound called vanillin, contains a phenol group. Diagram 3 shows the structure of both hormones as well as the structure of vanillin. Test your knowledge to see if you can locate the phenol group.

Diagram 3

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