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Chemistry LibreTexts

12.1: Organic Chemistry

Skills to Develop

  • To recognize the composition and properties typical of organic and inorganic compounds.

Scientists of the 18th and early 19th centuries studied compounds obtained from plants and animals and labeled them organic because they were isolated from “organized” (living) systems. Compounds isolated from nonliving systems, such as rocks and ores, the atmosphere, and the oceans, were labeled inorganic. For many years, scientists thought organic compounds could be made by only living organisms because they possessed a vital force found only in living systems. The vital force theory began to decline in 1828, when the German chemist Friedrich Wöhler synthesized urea from inorganic starting materials. He reacted silver cyanate (AgOCN) and ammonium chloride (NH4Cl), expecting to get ammonium cyanate (NH4OCN). What he expected is described by the following equation.

\[AgOCN + NH_4Cl \rightarrow AgCl + NH_4OCN \label{Eq1}\]

Instead, he found the product to be urea (NH2CONH2), a well-known organic material readily isolated from urine. This result led to a series of experiments in which a wide variety of organic compounds were made from inorganic starting materials. The vital force theory gradually went away as chemists learned that they could make many organic compounds in the laboratory.

Today organic chemistry is the study of the chemistry of the carbon compounds, and inorganic chemistry is the study of the chemistry of all other elements. It may seem strange that we divide chemistry into two branches—one that considers compounds of only one element and one that covers the 100-plus remaining elements. However, this division seems more reasonable when we consider that of tens of millions of compounds that have been characterized, the overwhelming majority are carbon compounds.

The word organic has different meanings. Organic fertilizer, such as cow manure, is organic in the original sense; it is derived from living organisms. Organic foods generally are foods grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Organic chemistry is the chemistry of compounds of carbon.

Carbon is unique among the other elements in that its atoms can form stable covalent bonds with each other and with atoms of other elements in a multitude of variations. The resulting molecules can contain from one to millions of carbon atoms. We previously surveyed organic chemistry by dividing its compounds into families based on functional groups. We begin with the simplest members of a family and then move on to molecules that are organic in the original sense—that is, they are made by and found in living organisms. These complex molecules (all containing carbon) determine the forms and functions of living systems and are the subject of biochemistry.

Organic compounds, like inorganic compounds, obey all the natural laws. Often there is no clear distinction in the chemical or physical properties among organic and inorganic molecules. Nevertheless, it is useful to compare typical members of each class, as in Table \(\PageIndex{1}\).

Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): General Contrasting Properties and Examples of Organic and Inorganic Compounds
Organic Hexane    Inorganic NaCl
low melting points −95°C    high melting points 801°C
low boiling points 69°C high boiling points 1,413°C
low solubility in water; high solubility in nonpolar solvents insoluble in water; soluble in gasoline greater solubility in water; low solubility in nonpolar solvents soluble in water; insoluble in gasoline
flammable highly flammable nonflammable nonflammable
aqueous solutions do not conduct electricity nonconductive aqueous solutions conduct electricity conductive in aqueous solution
exhibit covalent bonding covalent bonds exhibit ionic bonding ionic bonds

Keep in mind, however, that there are exceptions to every category in this table. To further illustrate typical differences among organic and inorganic compounds, Table \(\PageIndex{1}\) also lists properties of the inorganic compound sodium chloride (common table salt, NaCl) and the organic compound hexane (C6H14), a solvent that is used to extract soybean oil from soybeans (among other uses). Many compounds can be classified as organic or inorganic by the presence or absence of certain typical properties, as illustrated in Table \(\PageIndex{1}\).