Alkanes

Why are alkanes inert?


Alkanes (also known as paraffins or saturated hydrocarbons) are chemical compounds that consist only of the elements carbon (C) and hydrogen (H) (i.e., hydrocarbons), wherein these atoms are linked together exclusively by single bonds (i.e., they are saturated compounds). Alkanes belong to a homologous series of organic compounds in which the members differ by a constant relative molecular mass of 14.
Each carbon atom must have 4 bonds (either C-H or C-C bonds), and each hydrogen atom must be joined to a carbon atom (H-C bonds). A series of linked carbon atoms is known as the carbon skeleton or carbon backbone. In general, the number of carbon atoms is often used to define the size of the alkane (e.g., C2-alkane).
An Alkyl group, generally abbreviated with the symbol R, is a functional group or side-chain that, like an alkane, consists solely of single-bonded carbon and hydrogen atoms, for example a methyl or ethyl group.
In general, alkanes show a relatively low reactivity, because their C bonds are relatively stable and cannot be easily broken. Unlike most other organic compounds, they possess no functional groups.
They react only very poorly with ionic or other polar substances. The acid dissociation constant (pKa) values of all alkanes are above 60, hence they are practically inert to acids and bases (see: carbon acids). This inertness is the source of the term paraffins (with the meaning here of "lacking affinity"). In crude oil the alkane molecules have remained chemically unchanged for millions of years.
However redox reactions of alkanes, in particular with oxygen and the halogens, are possible as the carbon atoms are in a strongly reduced condition; in the case of methane, the lowest possible oxidation state for carbon (−4) is reached. Reaction with oxygen (if an amount of the least is enough to meet the reaction stoichometry) leads to combustion without any smoke; with halogens, substitution. In addition, alkanes have been shown to interact with, and bind to, certain transition metal complexes in (See: carbon-hydrogen bond activation).
Free radicals, molecules with unpaired electrons, play a large role in most reactions of alkanes, such as cracking and reformation where long-chain alkanes are converted into shorter-chain alkanes and straight-chain alkanes into branched-chain isomers.
In highly branched alkanes, the bond angle may differ significantly from the optimal value (109.5°) in order to allow the different groups sufficient space. This causes a tension in the molecule, known as steric hindrance, and can substantially increase the reactivity.
The simplest possible alkane (the parent molecule) is methane, CH4. There is no limit to the number of carbon atoms that can be linked together, the only limitation being that the molecule is acyclic, is saturated, and is a hydrocarbon. Saturated oils and waxes are examples of larger alkanes where the number of carbons in the carbon backbone tends to be greater than 10.
Alkanes are not very reactive and have little biological activity. Alkanes can be viewed as a molecular tree upon which can be hung the interesting biologically active/reactive portions (functional groups) of the molecule.

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