What Is a Hydrocarbon?

A hydrocarbon is an organic chemical compound composed exclusively of hydrogen and carbon atoms. Hydrocarbons are naturally-occurring compounds and form the basis of crude oil, natural gas, coal, and other important energy sources.

Hydrocarbons are highly combustible and produce carbon dioxide, water, and heat when they are burned. Therefore, hydrocarbons are highly effective as a source of fuel.

Key Takeaways

  • Hydrocarbons are chemical compounds that are utilized as the basis of the vast majority of global energy production.
  • A variety of complex technologies and techniques have been developed for extracting hydrocarbons from deep within the earth.
  • Some of the world's largest companies are hydrocarbon companies, primarily oil and gas companies.
  • The use of hydrocarbons as an energy source has negatively impacted the world's climate in a significant way, resulting in climate change.
  • Because of the serious environmental cost of using hydrocarbons as a primary source of energy, attempts to move away from them towards alternative energy sources, such as solar, nuclear, wind, and geothermal power have increased significantly.

Understanding Hydrocarbons

Hydrocarbons occur naturally throughout the world, originating from plant and animal fossils that have been formed by the forces of temperature and weight over millennia. They are mostly found deep underground, in porous rock formations (such as sandstone, limestone, and shale).

Porous rock formations are often found in large bodies of water, so there is an immense quantity of hydrocarbons trapped deep beneath the oceans. Oil and natural gas exploration companies use advanced engineering techniques to identify these potential reservoirs and pull their resources to the surface for human use. Examples of such technologies include offshore oil platforms, directional drilling, and enhanced oil recovery (EOR) techniques.

Hydrocarbons are very important for the modern economy. Globally, hydrocarbons are responsible for roughly 85% of energy consumption. This figure may actually understate the role of hydrocarbons in the economy by a significant margin because they are used in a wide range of applications aside from their use as a source of energy. For example, refined petroleum has been used to produce myriad derivative materials that play critical roles in the global economy, such as plastics, solvents, and lubricants.

Different techniques are used to extract hydrocarbons, depending on the type and location of the reserve. For example, hydraulic fracturing—better known as “fracking”—is used to extract natural gas from shale rock by using pressurized fracking fluid to create fissures through which the gas can escape to the surface. Mining is used to access oil sands, which are unconventional deposits of crude oil that are heavily intermixed with sand and sandstone.

Examples of Hydrocarbon Companies

Because hydrocarbons are the largest energy source in the globe, some of the largest companies in the world are hydrocarbon companies. These primarily include oil and gas companies that mine hydrocarbons and convert them into the energy sources that the world uses to power almost everything.

Some of the largest hydrocarbon companies include Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, Saudi Aramco, and PetroChina. The success of these companies and their ability to provide energy sources efficiently and cheaply greatly impact the world's financial markets and economies.

The fluctuations in the price of oil have a great impact on the cost of gasoline for cars, jet fuel for airlines, and gas for heating homes. These costs affect how consumers spend their money; decisions that reverberate throughout the global economy.

Special Considerations

Unfortunately, it is now understood that there is a serious environmental cost to using hydrocarbons as a primary source of energy. Greenhouse gasses released during the combustion of hydrocarbons are contributing to climate change. The process of oil and gas extraction can damage the surface environment and surrounding groundwater of the extraction site.

Many economists argue that hydrocarbon energy production involves substantial negative externalities that are not sufficiently represented in the market price of oil and gas. In fact, considering the mounting cost of climate-change-related phenomena, many argue that these externalities significantly outweigh any cost savings associated with hydrocarbons.

Alternatives to Hydrocarbons

To address the negative impact of hydrocarbon energy, there is a growing movement toward the use of renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, and geothermal power. Alongside innovations in battery technology and “smart grid” infrastructure, these new energy alternatives may play a significantly larger role in global energy production in the years and decades ahead.


Solar power comes from the sun. The process transforms solar energy into thermal or electrical energy that is used in powering homes, heating water for commercial and industrial use, and providing electricity. Solar energy is considered to be the most abundant and cleanest energy source in the world.

The top five solar power producing countries are China, the United States, Japan, Germany, and India.

Solar power has gained prominence in the use of homes and office buildings. It functions via solar panels that are placed on these structures that convert solar energy into electricity and other uses. Solar panel companies have become common and a new part of the energy industry.


Wind energy utilizes the wind to create power or electricity. Wind turbines are created to convert the energy in wind to mechanical power, which is then used for a variety of industrial tasks as well as in creating electricity through the use of a generator. Wind turbines can be found on both land and water.


Geothermal energy taps into the heat that exists under the surface of the earth. The sources of heat are trapped inside rocks and liquids under the surface as well as far down towards the earth's core. Geothermal energy is created by digging wells into the earth's surface to access the steam and hot water, which are used to power generators that create electricity.

Hydrocarbon FAQs

What Is a Hydrocarbon and Its Uses?

A hydrocarbon is an organic compound consisting of hydrogen and carbon found in crude oil, natural gas, and coal. Hydrocarbons are highly combustible and the main energy source of the world. Its uses consist of gasoline, jet fuel, propane, kerosene, and diesel, to name just a few.

What Are the Types of Hydrocarbons?

There are two types of hydrocarbons: aliphatic and aromatic. The three types of aliphatic hydrocarbons are alkanes, alkenes, and alkynes. Aromatic hydrocarbons include benzene. Overall, examples of hydrocarbons are methane, ethane, propane, and butane.

What Is Hydrocarbon Fuel?

Hydrocarbon fuel is fuel that is derived from a hydrocarbon, which includes gasoline and jet fuel, both of which have significant uses in the modern world, from powering cars to planes to lawnmowers.

How Do You Identify a Hydrocarbon?

Hydrocarbons are identified by studying their molecular structure. Hydrocarbons only consist of carbon and hydrogen, in many different formats, but that is their identifying feature.

Are Hydrocarbons Harmful to Humans?

Yes, hydrocarbons are dangerous to humans. Gases emitted from hydrocarbons have shown to damage respiratory systems and harm the environment through climate change and the greenhouse effect. Oil spills damage ecosystems. While hydrocarbons are natural occurrences, it is their manipulation into energy sources that are harmful to humans.

The Bottom Line

Hydrocarbons are naturally occurring chemical compounds that consist of hydrogen and carbon found in crude oil, natural gas, and coal. They have been manipulated by humans to be used as an energy source, such as gasoline and jet fuel. The use of hydrocarbons, particularly their burning, such as in coal, has had a devastating impact on the environment. As a result, many alternative energy sources that are safer and cleaner have been developed, such as solar and wind.