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July 26, 2012
Amines and the Landscape of Chemical Stink
I was using a tertiary amine the other day when the thought occurred to me: these things all smell the same. The amine smell is instantly recognizable, fishy and penetrating, in the same way that sulfur smells are also easy to pick out (rotten egg/skunk/burning rubber and worse). But as the triethylamine smell wafted along, I began to think that the sulfur stenches cover a wider range than the amine ones.
Is that so? Sulfur compounds certainly have the bigger reputation for strong smells, and it's well earned. But I still have the impression that various thiols or low-molecular sulfides are easier to distinguish from each other. They all have that sulfur reek to them, but in subtle and ever-varying ways. I sound like a wine critic. Amines, though, tend to be a big more one-note. Fish market, they say. Low tide. I'm not sure I could tell triethylamine from Hünig's base from piperidine in a blind snort test, not that I'm totally motivated to try.
There are exceptions. The piperazines often take on a musty, dirt-like smell that overrides the fishy one. (Note, however, that the classic "dirt" smell is largely produced by a compound that has no nitrogen atoms in it at all). And when they first encounter pyrrolidine, chemists (especially male ones) are generally taken aback. (Now that I think about it, does piperdine smell more like pyrrolidine or like the generic tertiary amines?) The straight-chain diamines should be singled out, too, for their famously stinky qualities. If you've never encountered them, the mere existence of compounds with names like putrescine and cadaverine should be warning enough.
We should probably leave pyridine out of the discussion, since as an aromatic ring it's in a different class. But it has to be noted that its odor is truly vile and alien, smelling (fortunately) like nothing on earth except pyridine. These examples are enough, though, to make me wonder if I'm short-changing the amines when I don't rate them as highly for range and versatility in the chemical odor department. Examples are welcome in the comments of amines that go beyond the Standard Mackeral. . .
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