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What Are Terpene Hydrocarbons?

Terpene classification can be confusing, especially for those unfamiliar with them or those who do not have a background in chemistry. Terms like isoprene and hydrocarbon can seem like a foreign language and even after you learn what they mean it is easy to mix them up. For this post, we’re going to break down terpene classification to straighten everything out.

What are hydrocarbons?

Hydrocarbons are organic compounds (any chemical compound containing carbon) that consist of hydrogen and carbon; combine hydrogen (hydro) and carbon and you get hydrocarbon! There are three kinds of hydrocarbons: saturated, unsaturated, and aromatic. Saturated hydrocarbons are considered the simplest and are made up of only single bonds with hydrogen. Unsaturated can have double or even triple bonds with carbon. Lastly, aromatic hydrocarbons have an aromatic ring (a ring shaped, flat molecule). Hydrocarbons can take on many forms such as liquid, gas, low-melting solids, and more. These compounds have an affinity for bonding and thus make up the base of many, more complex chemical compounds.

How do hydrocarbons relate to terpenes?

In “What are Terpenes?”, we describe terpenes as having a isoprene base. This isoprene base is itself a hydrocarbon because it consists only of hydrogen and carbon (C5H8 ). Terpenes use the isoprene skeleton and build upon it, creating many variations. Terpenes are even classified based on the number of isoprene units they have.
  • Hermiterpenes: one isoprene unit
  • Monoterpenes: two isoprene units
  • Sesquiterpenes: three isoprene units
  • Diterpenes: four isoprene units
  • Sesterterpenes: five isoprene units
  • Triterpenes: six isoprene units
  • Sesquarterpenes: seven isoprene units
  • Tetraterpenes: eight isoprene units
  • Polyterpenes: many isoprene units
In conclusion, just like its isoprene base, terpenes are also hydrocarbons (consisting only of hydrogen and carbon atoms). One way to avoid mixing them up is thinking of it as an order of operations. First you need a hydrocarbon to make isoprene, then you need isoprene to make a terpene. While all terpenes are hydrocarbons, not all hydrocarbons are terpenes. That being said, it is important to note that terpenoids and terpenes are not that same things (though many mistakenly use them interchangeably). While terpenes are hydrocarbons, terpenoids are not due to their oxygen unit(s). We hope this helped clarify the difference between hydrocarbons, isoprene, and terpenes!

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