Life on our little blue marble relies on one thing above all others — the presence of carbon. Everything living on our planet is made up of carbon in one form or another, from the cells in your body to the grass in your yard to the trees across the street. Organic chemistry is the study of living things — or rather, what composes living things — and how it applies to life on Earth.
This might sound like an intimidating subject to broach, so we’ve gathered some easy organic chemistry topics for beginners to set you on the right path.
What Is Organic Chemistry?
This branch of science studies carbon and the chemistry of life. Not all these kinds of reactions are organic, so this type of chemistry specifically examines the carbon-hydrogen bond and the results that create living organisms. Many different careers, from veterinary medicine to dentistry to pharmacology, all rely on organic chemistry.
Organic chemists usually need a degree in their field, but many other professions require some experience to obtain a degree or certificate. Let’s take a look at some organic chemistry topics for beginners to help you make sense of this advanced science.
The Importance of Bonding
We know that everything on the planet is made up of atoms and molecules, but what holds all those component pieces together — turning them into you, me and every other living thing on Earth?
The answer is bonding. Atoms are inherently trying to reach the lowest-energy state possible, and most become stable when their valence shell — the part of the atom that holds the electrons — fills up. There are two different types of bonds: ionic and covalent.
Ionic bonds happen when an atom gains or loses one or more electrons. These bonds are most common in inorganic materials, so we’re going to pass over this topic for the moment.
Covalent bonds happen when atoms share electrons instead of gaining or losing them. These bonds are the basis of the molecule that makes up life on this planet. These come in two flavors: polar and nonpolar. In polar covalent bonds, the electrons are unequally shared and will move back and forth between the affected atoms within the molecule. Molecules with nonpolar bonds share their electrons equally.
This tendency of atoms to bond with one another makes up everything on this planet. The computer you’re reading this on is likely held together with ionic bonds, while the cells in your body rely on covalent bonds for the same task.
The Role of Electrons
We’ve already talked about electrons when it comes to organic chemistry and chemical bonds, but why are these little subatomic particles so important?
In a nutshell, it’s because life itself wouldn’t be possible without the movement of electrons.
The valence shell of an atom is like the candy shell on an M&M. Your favorite candy would be pretty messy without its hard outer shell, right? Atoms are pretty messy without a full valence shell, which is why they’re always seeking other elements to bond with to fill that outer shell.
Not all atoms will find that perfect pair. Chlorine, for example, naturally has seven valence electrons, so there will always be one odd electron out when it’s paired with something like sodium to make table salt (sodium chloride). Organic chemistry focuses on the bonds between these elements and how they come together to create something as complicated as the human body.
The average 154-pound person is made up of 7 billion billion billion atoms — and no, that’s not a typo. In spite of that, our bodies are mostly space. It doesn’t seem that way when you see the human anatomy, with organs crammed in so tightly it doesn’t seem like there’s room for anything else. If we removed all the space, the human body would fit in a box the size of a sugar cube.
Alkanes, Alkenes and Alkynes — What’s the Difference?
We’ve talked about organic chemistry and the carbon/hydrogen bond that makes up all life, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Compounds that include both carbon and hydrogen are known as hydrocarbons, and they come in three classes — alkanes, alkenes and alkynes. While all three are made up of hydrogen and carbon, they each have a different physical structure and thus have various chemical properties.
Alkanes are saturated hydrocarbons with a single bond between the hydrogen and carbon atoms. These are reasonably stable molecules, and their bonds don’t break easily. The simplest alkane is represented as CH4, and don’t contain any functional groups.
Alkenes are unsaturated hydrocarbons and feature one or more double or triple bonds between the hydrogen and carbon. These compounds can have functional groups, but they don’t always. While more stable than alkynes, these hydrocarbons are more reactive than alkanes.
Alkynes are also unsaturated hydrocarbons and exclusively have one or more triple bonds between the molecules. They’re also the least stable hydrocarbon and are more likely to react with their environment than alkanes or alkenes.
We mentioned functional groups when talking about the various types of hydrocarbons, but what does that term mean?
Functional groups are defined as “specific groupings of atoms within molecules that have their characteristic properties, regardless of the other atoms present in the molecules.” There are 14 of these functional groups that are considered key, as well as others that occasionally make an appearance. You’ve probably heard of a few of them, like alcohol and ketones. Ketones are a focal point of the keto diet that is growing in popularity.
The most important thing to remember is that if one or more of these functional groups are present in a hydrocarbon, they don’t change — even if the molecules around them do.
Studying Organic Chemistry
If any of these organic chemistry topics for beginners have piqued your interest, you might be wondering how to break into this field. The best thing you can do is focus on math, science, biology and chemistry when you’re in high school. Score high marks, and select a college that focuses on the sciences. There are plenty of tips for surviving organic chemistry — you just have to get there first.