As already mentioned, alkanes are saturated open chain hydrocarbons containing carbon - carbon single bonds. Methane (CH4) is the first member of this family. Methane is a gas found in coal mines and marshy places. If you replace one hydrogen atom of methane by carbon and join the required number of hydrogens to satisfy the tetravalence of the other carbon atom, what do you get? You get C2H6. This hydrocarbon with molecular formula C2H6 is known as ethane.
Thus you can consider C2H6 as derived from CH4 by replacing one hydrogen atom by -CH3 group. Go on constructing alkanes by doing this theoretical exercise i.e., replacing hydrogen atom by –CH3 group. The next molecules will be C3H8, C4H10 …
These hydrocarbons are inert under normal conditions as they do not react with acids, bases and other reagents. Hence, they were earlier known as paraffins (latin : parum, little; affinis, affinity). Can you think of the general formula for alkane family or homologous series? If we examine the formula of different alkanes we find that the general formula for alkanes is CnH2n+2.
It represents any particular homologue when n is given appropriate value. Can you recall the structure of methane? According to VSEPR theory, methane has a tetrahedral structure (Fig), in which carbon atom lies at the centre and the four hydrogen atoms lie at the four corners of a regular tetrahedron. All H-C-H bond angles are of 109.5°.
In alkanes, tetrahedra are joined together in which C-C and C-H bond lengths are 154 pm and 112 pm respectively (Unit 12). You have already read that C–C and C–H bonds are formed by head-on overlapping of sp3 hybrid orbitals of carbon and 1s orbitals of hydrogen atoms.