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Terpenes are everywhere in nature.
Terpenes are the primary compounds found in essential oils, and they are commonly found in medicinal plants and flowers.
For example, cedar and pine trees contain relatively high amounts of terpenes in comparison to other sources.
Terpenes play an important role in various industries, including cologne/perfume making, medicine, candle making, aromatherapy, and elsewhere.
Terpenes can either be made synthetically, or they can be derived from naturally occurring sources. The latter can give resultant products a more unique smell or profile.
Terpenes are a critical component of many industries.
One industry that relies heavily on plant terpenes to flavor products is beer. Beer, as you know, is flavored by hops. The quality of the hops used (and the ultimate flavor quality of the finished product) will depend on the terpene ratios found within the hops themselves.
The quality and ratio of terpenes in hops will give different types of beer a unique character and taste, creating a signature flavor and smell for each beer. Wherever flavor, smell, and taste converge in a commercial industry, terpenes are likely to be found.
Terpenes will oxidize if you’re not careful.
Terpenes can oxidize if left alone, so it is best to seal freshly made terpenes in a laboratory storage container. Most terpenes are considered volatile and will evaporate if left in the open.
The volatility of terpenes is what allows them to evaporate in warmer weather, filling the air with the sweet smells that are hallmarks of the season.
Exposure to light and heat can also oxidize terpenes, giving them a nasty smell or flavor. Backfilling your containers with Nitrogen, Argon, or another inert gas can help you prevent unwanted oxidation in your products.
Chemical or natural terpenes?
In the lab, various types of terpenes can be produced via synthesis or biosynthesis. These different types of terpenes will have widely different smells and properties.
Chemical synthesis may prove problematic, however, due to the complexity of the molecule. This means that extraction is often a preferred method over synthesis.
Terpenes are also used heavily by bugs and certain animals as a defense mechanism. Did you know that the distinct smell of skunks comes from a concentrated spray infused with terpenes? This probably won’t matter much for your lab, but it just might help you the next time you watch Jeopardy.