Understanding Hydrocarbons

Hydrocarbons are made up of carbon and hydrogen atoms and are generally colorless and hydrophobic with usually weak odors. Hydrocarbons are reduced into three categories: alkanes, alkenes, and alkynes. 

The most common hydrocarbon is methane, the primary component of natural gas and the simplest alkane. The general application for methane is its release into the atmosphere from crude oil production and several other industrial activities. Methane is also released from biological processes for soil bacteria and bacteria in the internals of termites and ruminants of cows. Other mammals (including humans) produce smaller amounts. 

Affected industries include oil and gas, refining, industrial processing, and agriculture.

A small amount of methane travels up from the troposphere, the layer of atmosphere closest to Earth to the troposphere. After a series of reactions, all hydrocarbons are converted to carbon dioxide and water.

Alkanes are the least reactive of the bunch with only a single carbon bond but are the most saturated. Alkenes are hydrocarbons that have a double bond between two carbon atoms and are more reactive than alkanes. Alkenes usually react with electron-poor molecules at the pi bond, a covalent chemical bond where two lobes of an orbital on one atom overlap two lobes of an orbital on another atom and create lateral overlaps. Alkynes are a triple bond hydrocarbon and are the most reactive. Like alkenes, alkynes also react with electron-poor molecules at the pi bond. Alkenes and alkynes are unsaturated hydrocarbons due to their multiple carbon bonds at the pi bond area of the molecule. 

Hydrocarbons can also be aromatic or arene compounds, containing one or more rings with pi electrons and lack localization. This is important because the aromatic ring triggers the sense of smell, indicating in safety scenarios leak exposure. The odor given off can range from sweet to foul-smelling, dependent on the chemical composition of the molecule. 

Acute exposures to hydrocarbon gases and vapors can affect the eyes, lungs, and central nervous system. Higher concentrations can result in displaced oxygen, having exposure risks elevate to sensitizing the heart to stress hormones, such as catecholamines, causing abnormal rhythms and ventricular fibrillation that can lead to sudden death. Hydrocarbons also have low surface tension and low viscosity, therefore it penetrates deep into the lungs. This leads to severe necrotizing pneumonia as well as other breathing problems depending on the concentration when exposed and length of exposure.

Otis Instruments offers a vast selection of Wired and WireFree easy-to-use, robust, and configurable gas detectors and monitors capable of detecting both toxic and non-toxic gases for diverse applications. For more information regarding hydrocarbon specific gas detection systems, visit our products page. To ask a question or learn about other solutions for your industry, contact Otis Instruments today!

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