Hydrocarbons are organic molecules consisting entirely of carbon and hydrogen, such as methane (CH4) described above. We often use hydrocarbons in our daily lives as fuels—like the propane in a gas grill or the butane in a lighter. The many covalent bonds between the atoms in hydrocarbons store a great amount of energy, which releases when these molecules burn (oxidize). Methane, an excellent fuel, is the simplest hydrocarbon molecule, with a central carbon atom bonded to four different hydrogen atoms, as Figure illustrates. The shape of its electron orbitals determines the shape of the methane molecule's geometry, where the atoms reside in three dimensions. The carbons and the four hydrogen atoms form a tetrahedron, with four triangular faces. For this reason, we describe methane as having tetrahedral geometry.
As the backbone of the large molecules of living things, hydrocarbons may exist as linear carbon chains, carbon rings, or combinations of both. Furthermore, individual carbon-to-carbon bonds may be single, double, or triple covalent bonds, and each type of bond affects the molecule's geometry in a specific way. This three-dimensional shape or conformation of the large molecules of life (macromolecules) is critical to how they function.
Successive bonds between carbon atoms form hydrocarbon chains. These may be branched or unbranched. Furthermore, a molecule's different geometries of single, double, and triple covalent bonds alter the overall molecule's geometry as Figure illustrates. The hydrocarbons ethane, ethene, and ethyne serve as examples of how different carbon-to-carbon bonds affect the molecule's geometry. The names of all three molecules start with the prefix “eth-,” which is the prefix for two carbon hydrocarbons. The suffixes “-ane,” “-ene,” and “-yne” refer to the presence of single, double, or triple carbon-carbon bonds, respectively. Thus, propane, propene, and propyne follow the same pattern with three carbon molecules, butane, butene, and butyne for four carbon molecules, and so on. Double and triple bonds change the molecule's geometry: single bonds allow rotation along the bond's axis; whereas, double bonds lead to a planar configuration and triple bonds to a linear one. These geometries have a significant impact on the shape a particular molecule can assume.
So far, the hydrocarbons we have discussed have been aliphatic hydrocarbons, which consist of linear chains of carbon atoms. Another type of hydrocarbon, aromatic hydrocarbons, consists of closed rings of carbon atoms. We find ring structures in hydrocarbons, sometimes with the presence of double bonds, which we can see by comparing cyclohexane's structure to benzene in Figure. Examples of biological molecules that incorporate the benzene ring include some amino acids and cholesterol and its derivatives, including the hormones estrogen and testosterone. We also find the benzene ring in the herbicide 2,4-D. Benzene is a natural component of crude oil and has been classified as a carcinogen. Some hydrocarbons have both aliphatic and aromatic portions. Beta-carotene is an example of such a hydrocarbon.