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17.1: Aromatic Compounds: Overview

JoVE Core
Organic Chemistry

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Aromatic Compounds: Overview

17.1: Aromatic Compounds: Overview

In general, the term ‘aromatic’ indicates a pleasant smell or fragrance from fresh flowers, freshly prepared coffee, etc. In the early history of organic chemistry, many benzene derivatives were isolated from the pleasant odor oils of the plants. For example, vanillin was isolated from the oil of vanilla, methyl salicylate from the oil of wintergreen, and cinnamaldehyde from the oil of cinnamon. They all had a pleasant odor; hence the name aromatic was given.

In 1825, Faraday isolated benzene from compressed illuminating gas (the fuel burned in gaslights) and named it “bicarburet of hydrogen.”  He also performed an elemental analysis of the compound and observed a 1:1 ratio of hydrogen to carbon.

Later, Eilhardt Mitscherlich synthesized benzene from benzoic acid (isolated from gum benzoin) and calcium oxide in 1834. By conducting vapor density measurements, he showed the molecular formula of benzene to be C6H6. Since the new compound was derived from gum benzoin, he named it Benzin, now known as benzene. It is used as a laboratory solvent.


The term ‘aromatic’ is still used to describe all benzene derivatives, whether fragrant or not. Many of the natural as well as pharmaceutical compounds are aromatic. For example, estrone is a steroid, atorvastatin (Lipitor) is a cholesterol-lowering drug, Zoloft is an antidepressant, and Serevent used to treat asthma, are aromatic compounds.


Aromatic compounds are primarily obtained from coal and petroleum. Coal produces coal tar when heated to 1000 °C in the absence of air. Coal tar, upon fractional distillation, produces many aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzene, toluene, dimethyl benzene (xylene), naphthalene, biphenyl, indene, anthracene, etc.

However, aromatic compounds can not be obtained directly from petroleum. During petroleum refining, the alkanes are converted into aromatic compounds in the presence of a catalyst at 500 °C under high pressure.


Keywords: Aromatic Compounds Benzene Derivatives Vanillin Methyl Salicylate Cinnamaldehyde Benzene Coal Tar Coal Tar Distillation Aromatic Hydrocarbons Petroleum Refining Catalyst High Pressure

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