Alkanes, also known as paraffins, are chemical compounds that consist only of the elements carbon (C) and hydrogen (H) (i.e.,hydrocarbons), wherein these atoms are linked together exclusively by single bonds (i.e., they are saturated compounds) without any cyclic structure (i.e. loops). Alkanes belong to a homologous series of organic compounds in which the members differ by a constant relative atomic mass of 14.
Each carbon atom must have 4 bonds (either C-H or C-C bonds), and each hydrogen atom must be joined to a carbon atom (H-C bonds). A series of linked carbon atoms is known as the carbon skeleton or carbon backbone. In general, the number of carbon atoms is often used to define the size of the alkane (e.g., C2-alkane).
An alkyl group is a functional group or side-chain that, like an alkane, consists solely of singly-bonded carbon and hydrogen atoms, for example a methyl or ethyl groups.
Saturated hydrocarbons can be linear (general formula CnH2n+2) wherein the carbon atoms are joined in a snake-like structure, branched (general formulaCnH2n+2, n>3) wherein the carbon backbone splits off in one or more directions, or cyclic (general formula CnH2n, n>2) wherein the carbon backbone is linked so as to form a loop. According to the definition by IUPAC, the former two are alkanes, whereas the third group is called cycloalkanes. Saturated hydrocarbons can also combine any of the linear, cyclic (e.g., polycyclic) and branching structures, and they are still alkanes (no general formula) as long as they are acyclic (i.e., having no loops).
The simplest possible alkane (the parent molecule) is methane, CH4. There is no limit to the number of carbon atoms that can be linked together, the only limitation being that the molecule is acyclic, is saturated, and is a hydrocarbon. Saturated oils and waxes are examples of larger alkanes where the number of carbons in the carbon backbone tends to be greater than 10.
Alkanes are not very reactive and have little biological activity. Alkanes can be viewed as a molecular scaffold upon which can be hung the interesting biologically-active/reactive portions (functional groups) of the molecule.