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Super Chains: What is the Physical Structure of Methane, the Simplest Hydrocarbon?

Author: Janice VanCleave

Problem

What is the physical structure of methane, the simplest hydrocarbon (molecule containing hydrogen and carbon atoms) ?

Materials

  • 4 toothpicks
  • 1 large black gumdrop
  • 4 small white gumdrops

Procedure

  1. Stick the toothpicks in the large black gumdrop. Space the toothpicks so that they are an equal distance from one another.
  2. Place 1 small white gumdrop on the end of each toothpick.
  3. Super Chains

Results

You have made a molecular model for methane.

Why?

Hydrocarbon molecules are composed of carbon and hydrogen atoms. Each carbon atom in a hydrocarbon molecule has four bonds (connections between atoms) that are equally spaced, and each hydrogen atom has one bond. Methane is the simplest hydrocarbon molecule. In the methane structure, the single black gumdrop represents one carbon atom bonded (attached) to four hydrogen atoms represented by the white gumdrops. The chemical formula used to represent methane is CH4 The formula, like the model you made, shows that the methane molecule has one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms.

Let's Explore

What would be the shape of a hydrocarbon with two carbon atoms? Ethane contains two carbon atoms and six hydrogen atoms. The chemical formula for ethane is C2H6 To construct an ethane model, first connect two large black gumdrops with a toothpick. Then stick three toothpicks in each of the connected black gumdrops. Space the toothpicks so that all the toothpicks in each black gumdrop are an equal distance from one another. Place one small white gumdrop on the end of each toothpick. Science Fair Hint: Display models of methane and ethane as part of a project.

Super Chains

Show Time!

  1. What shapes do other hydrocarbons such a as propane (C3H8) and butane (C4H10) have? Remember that each carbon atom in a hydrocarbon molecule has four bonds that are equally spaced, and each hydrogen atom has one bond. Display all the models constructed as part of a project display.
  2. A structural formula for a hydrocarbon molecule is used to illustrate the number of connected carbon and hydrogen atoms. Complete the "Hydrocarbons" chart and display with the models of each molecule.

Check It Out!

Read about hydrocarbon gases such as methane, ethane, propane, and butane. Write and display a report about these gases. Include in the report answers to questions such as:

  • Why is methane called marsh gas?
  • Which of the gases are used as home fuels?

Super Chains

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