Ask A Scientist

What is an example of an organic compound?

Asked by: Jordan Woodsinger
School: St. James Middle School
Grade: 8
Teacher: Mrs. Hantsch
Hobbies/Interests: Lacrosse, soccer, basketball, hanging out with friends and going to see movies. 
Career Interest: Doctor

Answer from Jim Clum

Professor Emeritus, Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science

Research area: Materials Engineering
Interests/hobbies: Travel; volunteer Wisconsin public broadcasting & UW Arboretum; gardening.  

It is easy to lose sight of the more common historical use of the term “organic” as it has been applied to those materials that are made principally of carbon.  As for most of history the “organic’ materials were originally used directly from their natural sources, for example, wood from trees and bone from carcasses were early tools.  Now we are more used to the man-made versions of “organic” materials such as the pharmaceuticals and plastics mentioned before. Nonetheless, the fundamental chemical species of all “organic” materials is still the element carbon.  The many ways that carbon reacts with other elements such as hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen to form compounds gives rise to those materials we call “organic compounds”

To say that a material is an “organic” material derives from the early study of the chemicals that make up living organisms.  You may have heard the words ‘carbon life forms’ used in the television series Star Trek to describe ‘earthlings’.  That was another way of telling us they were talking about the organic substance that makes up our body parts.  

Today we hear “organic” used to describe ‘natural’ method of production of the food we eat as well as the chemistry (“organic” chemistry) used to synthesize everything from life-saving pharmaceuticals to the plastics used to make beverage containers.

One common example of an organic compound that we hear mentioned often if "octane" which is a major ingredient in gasoline.  It is a compound from a family of chemical compounds called "hydrocarbons" which are made of the chemical elements hydrogen and carbon.  Octane has a chemical formula which is written, C8H18. Other common examples include the hydrocarbon compound ethylene (formula: C2H4) which is the basis of the plastic milk jug plastic known as polyethylene, and 'rubbing' alcohol, or isopropyl alcohol (formula: C3H7(OH).

Organic chemistry deals with materials, or compounds that contain carbon, but not every chemical compound that contains carbon is an "organic" compound.  For example, the mineral limestone is made mostly of calcium carbonate (chemical formula:  CaCO3) which is an "inorganic" compound. Also, the essentially pure carbon materials such as graphite and diamond are not technically considered  "organic" materials.  

Last Updated: 9/18/13