One topic that you will learn briefly about in general chemistry, but will be the focus of an entire year for you, will be that of organic compounds. Organic compounds are distinguished from other compounds because they contain carbon, combined with other elements including hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Organic compounds were originally thought to come only from living beings because a “vital force” was thought to be emitted from a living organism, and to be contained within an organic compound. When urea was successfully synthesized in the laboratory by a German chemistry, Friedrick Wöhler, in 1828, however, this conception changed entirely. It was soon discovered that this compound, composed of ammonia and cyanic acid, was the exact same as the urea found in a living entity (Ebbing and Gammon 2009).
Organic molecules are all around us. Organic molecules make up things such as table sugar, peanut oil, antibiotic medications, and even windshield washer. That being said, organic compounds are clearly not merely found in living things, although they are indeed found in them in such things as amino acids, proteins, DNA, and enzymes, all of which make up our body. In fact, 13 million or 60% of the recorded substances in an international materials registry have been listed as organic (Ebbing and Gammon 2009).
Hydrocarbons are low-cost and easily available substances that make up many of the things we rely on for our comfort in society, today, such as sources of energy for heating our homes, for powering internal combustion engines, and for generating electricity. Many plastics also use hydrocarbons as their starting materials. Hydrocarbons are among the simplest of organic compounds, because they contain only carbon and hydrogen. Examples include methane (CH4), ethane (C2H6), propane (C3H8), acetylene (C2H2), and benzene (C6H6) (Ebbing and Gammon 2009).
Functional groups are important to the study of the chemistry of organic molecules. Groups of atoms in a molecule can have particular properties that are unique to that group, making the group reactive, and allowing that group to undergo reactions that are predictable, and these groups of atoms are known as functional groups. On common functional group is an alcohol, which is written as –OH. This means that any molecular compound that is an alcohol will have this functional group within it; for example, methyl alcohol has the formula CH3OH. Another functional group is an ether, written as –O—, meaning that any molecular compound containing an ether will contain an oxygen atom between two carbon atoms, such as in diethyl ether, written as CH3CH2OCH2CH3. Another functional group is that of carboxylic acids, written as –COOH. Acetic acid is an example of a carboxylic acid, and it is written as CH3COOH (Ebbing and Gammon 2009).
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