The element carbon is one of the most abundant elements on Earth. People have known about its existence since ancient times, and it still has many uses today.
Carbon’s symbol is “C,” and its name comes from the Latin word for charcoal: carbo. Its atomic number is six, which means that carbon has six protons and six electrons, and it has an atomic mass of 12.0107. The element’s electron configuration is 1s2 2s2 2p2. At room temperature, carbon is in a solid phase, and it melts at 6422 degrees Fahrenheit.
Carbon is found in many forms. It is the base of organic chemistry and life itself. Carbon has four pure forms in nature that are all different because of their molecular structures. These are called allotropes. They are amorphous carbon, fullerenes, graphite, and diamond. Of these, graphite and diamond are most common. Graphite is black in color, soft, has a flaky texture, and conducts electricity well. It is less dense than carbon’s other common form: diamond. This allotrope is colorless, very hard, and an electric insulator. It is also less reactive than graphite. Carbon is overall classified as a nonmetal, and it is a pure substance.
Since carbon is a naturally occurring substance, people in ancient tribes knew of its existence. However, they probably didn’t know that the separate allotropes were actually types of the same element. The official discovery of carbon as an element happened in the second half of the 18th century, when French scientist Antoine Lavoisier conducted an experiment with diamond in 1772. He and his fellow researchers placed the piece of diamond into a glass jar. With a big magnifying glass, they focused sun rays onto the diamond, which then burned and vanished. Lavoisier weighed the jar, and even though the diamond had dissapeared, the jar still weighed the same amount.
How had this happened? The burning diamond in the jar had combined with oxygen, a process that formed carbon dioxide. A few years later, Swedish scientist Carl Scheele confirmed that when graphite is burned, it combines with oxygen and forms carbon dioxide. To him, that meant that graphite and diamond were indeed made of the same element. Following his and Scheele’s outcomes, Lavoisier decided to name the element “carbon,” due to the word’s Latin meaning. Lavoisier proposed this name in 1789.
Other scientists such as Smithson Tennant, Benjamin Brodie, and Francis Bundy also made new discoveries involving the allotropes graphite and diamond. The discovery of fullerenes, a form of carbon in which the carbon atoms fit to make a football shape, occured in 1985. The scientists working with fullerenes were Robert Curl, Harry Kroto, and Richard Smalley. The most well-known fullerene is buckminsterfullerene, which is a group of 60 carbon atoms put together. Its symbol is C60.
Since carbon has so many different forms and isotopes and can react with other substances, there are many different uses for the element. Diamond, one of the most valuable forms of carbon and the most popular gemstone, is usually used for personal decoration. Many pieces of jewelry have beautifully carved diamonds in them. However, since it is the hardest common substance, diamond is also used as a component in industrial tools—specifically, for fine polishing, drilling, and cutting.
Graphite in particular has a variety of industrial uses. Pencil lead is mostly made of graphite; its flaky texture leaves lines and marks when pressure is applied. Graphite is also a component of car breaks, tennis racket frames, anti-corrosive paints, rubber, small electronic devices, and is even in some medicines.
Coal, which is mostly carbon, is commonly used as fuel. This type of coal, called “steam coal,” generates most of our electricity and is a fundamental part of our current society. A type of coal called “coking coal” is also aids in steel production.
Radiocarbon, a radioactive isotope of carbon, is mainly used in archaeological dating. Radiocarbon, or Carbon-14, is a naturally occurring isotope of carbon that has six protons and eight neutrons.
Although carbon has many popular industrial and economic uses in modern times, this vital element has many additional reasons that add to its being essential. Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the universe and the third most abundant in the Earth’s crust. In fact, there are more known compounds that have carbon in them than there are that don’t contain the element. All lifeforms on Earth are carbon-based, and carbon makes up about 20% of living organisms. Carbon travels around the Earth from the air in the atmosphere to the depths of the ocean and ground. This voyage of carbon is usually called the “carbon cycle.” Carbon is also a main part of the molecule CO2, or carbon dioxide, which is crucial for plants and passes through each humans' blood and lungs every time we take a breath.
Carbon is an important part of our everyday lives. We as living organisms simply would not exist without this element.
[Sources: chemicool.com;education.jlab.org; science.marshall.edu; worldcoal.org; geology.com; minesqc.com; radiocarbon.com; eo.ucar.edu]