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Organic chemistry derives its name from the once-held belief that organic compounds could only be produced through living (organic) sources.

The element carbon readily forms covalent bonds with other elements to form compounds. In particular, carbon can bond with hydrogen, oxygen, chlorine and nitrogen. Carbon’s sheer versatility is shown not only in the different ways it can occur as an element (such as diamond, graphite or buckminsterfullerine), but also in the way it can create millions of different compounds. The study of such carbon compounds (excluding carbon oxides) is known as organic chemistry.

It used to be thought that compounds such as alcohol could only be made by living organisms -hence the name organic chemistry. However, in 1828, Friedrich Wohler made urea (a substance found in urine) from inorganic (i.e. mineral) precursors without the intervention of any living organism. It is now possible for chemists to make synthetically almost any chemical compound that  nature produces.

Many useful things involve organic compounds, some made naturally, such as food and drink, cotton, wood, wool and leather. Synthetic (manmade) organic compounds are becoming increasingly available, such as artificial fibres, plastics, explosives, dyestuffs and medicines.


One of the main groups of hydrocarbons in petroleum is the alkanes. Alkanes have the general formula CnH2n+2. Methane, CH4, an important natural gas, is the alkane formed when n = 1. When there are four carbon atoms, the alkane is butane, C4H10, another important fuel.

Other organic compounds in everyday life include ethanol, which is the intoxicant of alcoholic drinks, and ethanoic acid, the active ingredient of vinegar.


Polymers are chemicals composed of large molecules in which a group of atoms is repeated. Nature makes many of these long-chain molecules, which structurally resemble a string of beads. The molecules that constitute the beads are called monomers, of which there can be hundreds or even millions linked together in a chain. Some polymers are naturally occurring, such as cellulose, starches, proteins, fats and DNA. There are also many artificial polymers, more commonly called plastics. Polythene (or polyethene) is a polymer made from the monomer ethene. Other artificial polymers include polystyrene, nylon and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).


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