Looking at the ingredient list of some popular processed foods will produce a puzzled look on the typical hacker’s face. Tricalcium phosphate, thiamine mononitrate, zinc proteinate, pyridoxine hydrocloride… just who the hell comes up with these names anyway? It turns out that there is a method to the madness of chemical name structures. Some of them are well known, such as sodium chloride (NaCl) and hydrogen peroxide (H2O2). Others… not so much. In the early years of chemistry, chemical substances were named after their appearance, affects and uses. Baking soda, laughing gas and formic acid (formic is Latin for ant, and responsible for the sting in an ant bite) to name a few. As more and more chemical substances were discovered over time, a more structured naming convention was needed. Today, the above are known as sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3), nitrous oxide (N2O) and a type of carboxylic acid (R – COOH, think of the “R” as a variable) respectively.
In today’s article, we’re going to talk about this naming structure, so that next time you admire the back of soup can, you won’t look so puzzled. We’ll also cover several common definitions that every novice biohacker should be familiar with as well.
Naming Ionic Compounds
Chemical compounds are formed when two or more atoms stick together. One of the ways they do this is called ionic bonding. It occurs when there is a difference in charge between the atoms, and should be familiar to the hacker as it involves a positive and negative charge. Atoms are usually neutral, with a balance of the number of negatively charged electrons and positively charged protons. However, many can easily become charged by gaining or losing one or more electrons. When this happens, the atom is known as an ion. If it’s positively charged, we call it a cation. If it’s negatively charged, we call it an anion.
Atoms in the first three groups of the periodic table tend to form cations because the have few valance electrons, making them easy to remove. A sodium cation is simply referred to as a sodium ion. No name change is needed for these groups because their charge will most always be the same as their group number.
It’s a bit different for groups 4 through 7. These atoms tend to form anions because their valence shells are nearly full. They will happily steal an electron to become isoeletronic with their nearest noble gas – the most stable state possible. When an atom becomes an anion, the letters “ide” are appended to the end. Let’s look at an example – sodium chloride.
The sodium atom will lose its single valance electron and the chlorine atom will gladly take it. This makes two ions – a sodium cation and a chlorine anion. Because they now have different charges, they stick together to form an ionic bond. The sodium atom is still called “sodium”, but the chlorine atom becomes “chloride”.
Most ionic compounds are binary. The cation name comes first, followed by the anion name. More examples are sodium bromide (NaBr), calcium fluoride (CaF2), lithium nitride (Li3N)…you get the idea.
Naming Molecular Compounds
With ionic bonding, we were dealing with losing and gaining electrons and forming ions. Atoms can also share electrons with each other. When they do this, we call it covalent bonding. Most covalent bonding occurs between non-metals, and the result is called a molecular compound.
The naming convention is similar to ionic compounds. The first part of the name is the first atom in the formula. The second atom in the formula gets the “ide” added to the end. For example, HCl is called hydrogen chloride.
It is very common for a pair of elements to form different binary compounds via covalent bonds. When this occurs, Greek prefixes are used to denote the number of atoms. Recall that the Greek prefixes are mono (1), di (2), tri (3), tetra (4), penta (5) and so on. So the formula CO2 would be called carbon dioxide. Traditionally, the mono prefix is left off of the first atom if there is only one. But the same rules are in play if there is more than one. For example, N205 would be called dinitrogen pentoxide.
Naming Organic Compounds
As most of you already know, organic compounds are special. Not surprisingly, they have their own special nomenclature, which we shall cover briefly. Organic compounds are compounds that contain hydrogen and carbon. When the compound is composed solely of hydrogen and carbon, they are called hydrocarbons. The simplest of these are known as alkanes, with their name being dependent on the number of carbon atoms in the molecule.
Acids are substances that produce hydrogen ions when dissolved in water. You might have noticed the example of HCl above as named hydrogen chloride. And this is correct. It is only when it is dissolved in water that it becomes hydrochloric acid.
By definition, acids need at least one ionizable hydrogen atom. To name an acid, we remove the “gen” from the hydrogen and replace the “ide” of the secondary element with “ic”. Some examples are hydrofluoric acid (HF, probably the worst acid you’re likely to encounter) and hydrobromic acid (HBr).
This article has only scratched the surface of chemical nomenclature, but should give you a good footing in the subject, and hopefully a look of understanding next time you read the ingredients of your favorite processed food.