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Organic chemistry is the study of carbon-containing compounds. This lesson will explore why carbon is such an important element, and how organic chemistry is related to your life.

What is Organic Chemistry?

Hello! My name is Callie Carbon and I’m here to tell you all about me, because I am super important.I know what you’re thinking: ‘Callie Carbon kind of sounds self-absorbed.

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‘ But I really am important. In fact, there is an entire branch of chemistry dedicated just to me called organic chemistry, or the study of carbon-containing molecules and the compounds they form. Before we go on, people often think of organic as ‘natural’ or ‘pesticide-free,’ but in chemistry it doesn’t mean that. So go ahead and enjoy your organic tomatoes, but realize that has a different meaning than the ‘organic’ in chemistry.Anyways, not all substances that contain carbon fall into the organic chemistry category. For example, a diamond is made up of carbon atoms, but studying diamonds wouldn’t make you an organic chemist, so I should add organic chemistry usually involves the study of molecules that have the carbon-hydrogen bond.

But you’ll see various definitions depending on where you are looking.Yeah, hydrogen and I are pretty close and we usually hang out together, and we can be found in everything that is or was alive! So that includes you, your dog Rex, and even your houseplant. But there’s more! We can be found in the gasoline in your car, your plastic water bottle, and even the asphalt on the highway!Before we talk about why I am so important, let’s take a closer look at what organic chemists study.

  • They look at the structure and composition of carbon-containing molecules. Some molecules are small, some are large, some have double bonds, and others have rings. There are many different organic molecules, so there are many different structures.

    Some are made of just carbon and hydrogen, whereas others have other elements, too.

  • Organic chemists look at the properties of organic compounds. For example, are they a solid at room temperature? Or are they a gas? Do they dissolve easily in water?
  • They examine how organic molecules can be prepared. For example, what happens if you combine two or three organic molecules? What type of new compound do you get?
  • Finally, they look at the different reactions that can occur.

Why Carbon?

So you might be wondering: ‘Why is carbon the element that’s so important? Why not neon? Or chlorine?’ I don’t want to put down my fellow elements — I mean neon and chlorine are friends of mine, but they can’t do what I can do! For starters, I can bond, or attach, with four other elements at the same time.

This is because I have four valence electrons, or the outermost electrons farthest from the center, or nucleus, of an atom.In order to reach stability, atoms like to have eight valence electrons, so I tend to share four other electrons with another atom, which gives me eight total. So I bond, or attach, to other atoms through covalent bonds, or the bond formed when atoms share electrons. Each valence electron is involved in bonding, so this is why I can attach, or bond, to four other atoms at once!But that’s not all! In addition to bonding with four different atoms at once, I am also pretty special because of the way I can bond. For example, I can form simple bonds and make something like methane: attaching to four hydrogen atoms. Or I can make a more complicated molecule by bonding with other carbons and forming a chain.

I can make a branching chain, I can double back and make rings, and I can even form double or triple bonds with other atoms! I’m sure talented!So you probably get the idea that I can bond with many different elements, in many different ways, and so I can make millions of different organic molecules, or molecules that contain carbon.Many of these organic molecules are important to you, even if you don’t know it. Not only do I make up 18% of your body, but I’m also the building block for tons of stuff inside of you. I make up the sugar that gives you energy, the protein that makes your muscles, the enzymes that help the chemical reactions occur faster in your body, the DNA inside of your cells, the fats that cushion your organs.

.. okay, okay, I know! I can’t stop talking about myself! Since I am the element that makes up so many important parts of the human body, you can start calling yourself a carbon-based life form.

Branches of Organic Chemistry

Without carbon, there wouldn’t be life on earth, so yeah, I am a pretty big deal. But, other than making up your body, your water bottle, and the gas for your car, what other purposes do I serve? Well, there are several fields where organic chemistry is utilized, so let’s take a moment to quickly look at some, starting with biotechnology. This is a branch of organic chemistry that modifies living organisms for other purposes. For example, about 80% of the papayas grown in Hawaii have been genetically modified in order to be resistant to a certain virus. Then there’s the pharmaceutical branch, whose goal is to develop medications to treat and cure diseases.

So far, most of what we talked about is organic chemistry and living organisms, right? I guess I briefly mentioned gasoline and plastic, but that’s about all. What if I were to tell you organic chemistry is pretty important to many fields not involving organisms that are currently living? For example, although crude oil is made from tiny organisms that once were living, they certainly aren’t now, which leads us to the petroleum field where people try to find, extract, and refine petroleum. Or the chemical field where raw materials like petroleum, crude oil, and metals are made into 70,000 products, including rubbers, plastics, and textiles. See, I really am everywhere!

Lesson Summary

You should know by now that Callie Carbon isn’t just a pretty face! I am so important I get my own branch of chemistry called organic chemistry.

Let’s take a moment to review some important terms and ideas.

  • Organic chemistry studies carbon-containing molecules and the compounds they form.
  • Organic chemists look at the reactions, the structure and composition, the properties and how organic molecules can be prepared.
  • Carbon is special because it can attach to four other atoms, and it can do so in many different ways from rings, to chains, to double or even triple bonds. This results in many different types of organic molecules.

  • These organic molecules make up the building blocks for living things, so you are a carbon-based life form.
  • There are many fields that require a firm understanding of organic chemistry, from pharmaceuticals to finding and extracting petroleum.

So yeah, you shouldn’t forget me. I mean, I’m all around you and without me, you wouldn’t exist.

Learning Outcomes

Thoroughly studied, this lesson is designed to prepare you to:

  • Remember the definition of organic chemistry
  • State the things studied by organic chemists
  • Explain why carbon is so unique and important for life
  • List some of the fields that use organic chemsitry

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