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Any of a class of organic compounds composed only of carbon and hydrogen. The carbon atoms form the framework, and the hydrogen atoms attach to them. Hydrocarbons, the principal constituents of petroleum and natural gas, serve as fuels, lubricants, and raw materials for production of plastics, fibres, rubbers, solvents, explosives, and industrial chemicals. All burn to carbon dioxide and water with enough oxygen or to carbon monoxide without it. The two major categories are aliphatic, with the carbon atoms in straight or branched chains or in nonaromatic rings, and aromatic (seearomatic compound). Aliphatic compounds may be saturated (paraffins) or, if any carbon atoms are joined by double or triple bonds, unsaturated (e.g., olefins, alkenes, alkynes). All but the simplest hydrocarbons have isomers (seeisomerism). Ethylene, methane, acetylene, benzene, toluene, and naphthalene are hydrocarbons.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on hydrocarbon, visit Britannica.com.