O,Chem

During a recent medical appointment, along with the usual chit-chat, the Physicians Assistant mentioned how she had had trouble with “O Chem” as an undergraduate. Turns out she meant Organic Chemistry. The word “organic” has, in modern times, acquired several meanings it didn’t have, back in the day. We speak of a subclass of food as a prominent example meaning, supposedly, that it was grown or processed without use of pesticides.

Organic Chemistry is a part of the science which deals with compounds containing one element, carbon, as an essential part. As I have mentioned in other posts, carbon-containing compounds far outnumber compounds consisting of the other 117 or so elements. Naming these presents another challenge to us consisting of yet another foreign language. Compounds of carbon are tied together, as it were, by covalent bonds, meaning that electrons are shared, rather than given/taken as is the case with ionic bonds.

To name this universe of stuff, we need some rules. Officially, the formal system is called the IUPAC. (It must be complicated because the acronym is 5 letters long!) Stands for International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, a mouthful in itself. I won’t induce any more sleep by trying to explain it further, but to point out that there are a mess of so called “trivial”names for them, used by practitioners.

Many of the chemicals we ingest are organic. The vast majority of pharmaceuticals are organic compounds. Illicit drugs are. Fossil fuels are . Proteins, carbohydrates and fats are. Sounds like Cole Porter lyrics? You get my drift….

Organic compounds can be formed by long “chains” of carbon atoms, 30, 40,50 or more, while inorganic compounds are considerably shorter. Since the carbon atom has 4 valence electrons, it can form bonds with four other elements (including even another carbon atom). Atoms (or groups of atoms) bonded to carbons are known as “functional groups”, since they can react chemically to form other compounds. This gives rise

to the extremely large number of organic chemicals.

The simplest (and, might I add, boring) organic compounds are the hydrocarbons. They burn, forming water, carbon dioxide (and, under the wrong conditions, carbon monoxide), and heat- and that’s about it. They keep us warm at a price – greenhouse gases. Halogens (Cl, F, Br, I) bond with carbon, as well as -OH (alcohols), -COOH (acids). These elements undergo numerous reactions to form other compounds.

As a practical matter, organic chemists specialize in certain groups of compounds. The chemicals I tended to work with included pharmaceuticals and such bad boys as cocaine, heroin and LSD, to mention a few of the home remedies out there. Although my work tended toward analytical chemistry (what is it, and how much is present) I did some work on synthesis (how do you make stuff). One of my earliest gigs, as a DEA program manager, was to “reverse engineer” procedures believed to be followed by “chemists” working in the south of France (making the purest heroin out there). I took advantage of my Franco-American heritage to translate recipes from French to English. We had lofty ambitions to develop remote sensing technologies which, unfortunately were not sufficiently mature to take on the road, so to speak. (as it happened, we were able to detect wineries and dry cleaning establishments, but, alas, no heroin refineries).

Not for lack of trying.

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