Hydrocarbons: Definition, Companies, Types, and Uses

What Is a Hydrocarbon?

The term hydrocarbon refers to an organic chemical compound that is composed exclusively of hydrogen and carbon atoms. Hydrocarbons are naturally-occurring and form the basis of crude oil, natural gas, coal, and other important energy sources. They are highly combustible and produce carbon dioxide, water, and heat when they are burned. As such, 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. They originate from plant and animal fossils that were 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. They are responsible for more than 80% of global 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 many 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.

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.

Out of the top 10 companies in the world, six of them are state-owned. Saudi Aramco is the world's largest oil and gas company while Exxon Mobil (XOM), which is based in the United States, is the world's largest public company. Other names in this space include:

  • Chevron (CVX)
  • Royal Dutch Shell (SHEL)
  • PetroChina (PTR)
  • National Iranian Oil Company
  • Gazprom (GZPM)
  • British Petroleum (BP)

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.

Impact of Hydrocarbons


There is a serious environmental cost to using hydrocarbons as a primary source of energy. Fossil fuel sources like crude oil, natural gas, and coal contain hydrogen and carbon. When they're burned, they release greenhouse gasses into the air, mainly carbon dioxide. Releasing them into the air contributes to climate change.

But it isn't just consumption that contributes to the deterioration of the environment. The process of oil and gas extraction also does considerable damage to the surface environment and surrounding groundwater of the extraction site by releasing pollutants. There is also a major threat of unexpected spills, which also has a negative impact on marine and aquatic life.


Not only does the use of hydrocarbons have an environmental impact but it also has economic implications. Proponents say that this sector is a major economic driver because of how vital it is in terms of the number of jobs it creates. And let's not forget how useful hydrocarbons are to society. After all, consumers need energy sources to fuel their cars, heat their homes, and light up their rooms.

But there's a clear downside. 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. Along with 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.

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 are more common and a new part of the energy industry.

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


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.

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.

Article Sources
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  1. Our World in Data. "Energy mix."

  2. World Population Review. "Solar Power by Country 2022."

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