The Critical Element Carbon

The Element Carbon

Found in many forms, the element carbon is one of the most common elements in the universe. It is also one of the most important elements on the periodic table and forms the basis for all life as we know it! All of organic chemistry is based on carbon. Diamond, graphite and charcoal are all forms of carbon. Find out more facts about this amazing element below.

15 Interesting Facts about Carbon

  1. Measuring amounts of the radioactive isotope Carbon-14 can help us to determine the age of things such as archaeological artifacts and ancient documents.
  2. Carbon nanotubes are one of the strongest materials in the world and have been proposed as a possible building material for some wild inventions such as a space elevator. 
  3. All life as we know it is based on carbon.
  4. Over 10 million compounds that we know of so far can be formed by carbon, more than any other element.
  5. Carbon is the 4th most abundant element in the universe but only the 15th most abundant element in the earth’s crust.
  6. All other elements’ atomic weights are measured relative to carbon-12.
  7. The name is derived from the Latin “carbo” meaning charcoal.
  8. Diamond is formed under great pressure deep in the earth’s crust, and are usually mined from ancient volcanic “pipes.”
  9. The human body is about 18% carbon by mass.
  10. Carbon is a key component of steel, which is one of the most widely used materials in the world.
  11. Diamond is the hardest known natural substance on Earth, while graphite is one of the softest.
  12. Carbon is one of the few elements that can form stable covalent bonds with itself, and as a result, it can exist in many different forms, known as allotropes. These allotropes include diamond, graphite, and graphene.
  13. Carbon copy paper is actually made with carbon. There is a wax layer on top of the carbon that disappears with pressure, transferring the carbon to the other page.
  14. The term graphite has Greek origin and is based on their term for ‘to write’.
  15. It is believed the word carbon comes from the Latin word ‘carbo’ which means coal.

Carbon in the Periodic Table

Carbon, with atomic number 6 and symbol C, resides in group 14 of the periodic table, to the right of boron and the left of nitrogen. The elements silicon, germanium, tin and lead are also in group 14. Carbon has some similarities to the metalloid silicon, but silicon cannot be the basis for life like carbon can. It is sometimes called the “king” of the periodic table.

Carbon is a non-metal, found in nature as graphite, diamond or fullerenes. It is tetravalent, having four electrons available to form covalent bonds. It occurs naturally as 3 isotopes – carbon 12, 13 and 14.

A History of Carbon

Unlike most elements, humans have been aware of carbon since ancient times. As early as 3750 BC, ancient Egyptians and Sumerians used charcoal, a form of carbon, to reduce various metals in the manufacturing process. The use of carbon continued until 1789 when Antoine Lavoisier listed carbon as an element for the first time. Many other forms of carbon have been discovered such as diamonds, graphite, graphene, and fullerene. Fullerene even won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996 the prize went to Robert Curl, Sir Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley. The element carbon continues to be actively investigated and plays a vital role in all fields of chemistry.

carbon element periodic table

Common Allotropes of Carbon

There are many different forms or allotropes of carbon. One of the most common of these is amorphous carbon which does not have a defined crystal structure. Coal is the most common example of amorphous carbon. Diamond is another well-known allotrope of carbon, with many uses, both industrial and cultural. The strong tetrahedral lattice of carbon-carbon bonds gives diamond its remarkable strength and characteristic shine. Pencils are an excellent example of another allotrope of carbon, graphite. Graphite consists of many large sheets of carbon sitting on top of each other. These sheets breaking off then is what enables you to leave marks on your paper with a pencil. There are also many other less common forms of carbon such as fullerenes and carbon nanotubes.

Carbon element in the periodic table

What other carbon facts do you know?

Common Reactions and Compounds

Numerous reactions in all branches of chemistry us carbon. One of the most common is combustion reactions, where a hydrocarbon reacts with oxygen to form carbon dioxide and water. Another important reaction with carbon is ocean acidification. This is when carbon dioxide dissolves in the ocean and reacts to form carboxylic acids, lowering the pH of the ocean. Carbon generally does not require significant effort to isolate. Coal, diamond, and graphite, are all pure, naturally occurring forms of carbon.

Carbon Compounds

Carbon can make a wide variety of different compounds. Two significant ones are carbon monoxide and methane. Methane has one of the highest per molecule warming potentials out of all the greenhouse gases. Carbon monoxide is a colorless odorless gas that can be fatal to humans. However, carbon monoxide can also serve as a useful ligand for many inorganic reactions. Another category of interesting carbon compounds is pi-conjugated systems. The overlap of several pi orbitals creates a delocalized system of electrons called a pi-conjugated system. The vivid colors that are formed make these compounds especially useful and pretty to look at.

Carbonate Ion, Bicarbonate Ion, and Carbide Ion

Carbon element forms several very important ions in chemistry, including the carbonate ion CO3-2, bicarbonate ion HCO3, and the carbide ion C-4. Sodium carbonate is used as washing soda. Most carbonates other than alkali metal carbonates are insoluble in water. Carbonates are useful in chemistry because they can be combined with an acid to form any other salt of that element. Soluble carbonates like sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate are basic in solution.

Bicarbonates are similar to carbonates, but they are more soluble in solution, and only slightly basic. They can act like buffers in solution. Heating a bicarbonate will often convert it to a carbonate.

One of the most common carbides is calcium carbide, Ca2C. It reacts with water to form acetylene gas. Carbides of the group 1 and group 2 metals are ionic compounds. Carbides of the transition metals such as titanium, zirconium, tungsten and molybdenum are interstitial compounds – which means the carbon atoms fill holes in the metal lattice. They are refractory, have metallic properties, and are usually non-stoichiometric.

Carbon facts and compounds

The Element Carbon in Organic Chemistry

Organic chemistry is one of the largest subfields in chemistry and is based entirely on the element carbon! Carbon can form very strong bonds with other carbon atoms, making it one of the building blocks for most organic compounds. Carbon is also able to form bonds with many other elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen. The bonds formed between carbon and these elements form the basis for functional groups, which enable the creation of a wide range of compounds from pharmaceuticals to dyes! Carbon is unique in this ability.

Carbon and the Climate

Levels of carbon in the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide have been rising steadily since the industrial revolution. This has been accelerating greatly in the last few decades and has led to drastic changes to the climate and a general increase in temperatures. This is because of the greenhouse effect, where the heightened levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere trap incoming sunlight and the earth warms as a result.

Although the earth has some natural carbon sinks, such as dissolved CO2 in the ocean and organic plant matter, these sinks have not been able to keep up with the increased levels of carbon as a result of human activity. There is a great deal of active research investigating ways to mitigate and reverse this trend. This encompasses a wide variety of different areas. For instance, carbon capture technology is a way to possibly remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Ways of generating energy without generating carbon, like wind and solar, is another area of active research.

Carbon periodic table

Carbon Element and Polymers

The strong bonds between carbons also enable the formation of polymers, long chains of linked carbon atoms. An important subcategory of polymers is plastic, one of the most common materials in our lives. The strength and versatility of carbon-carbon bonds enable polymers and plastics to serve many functions. Everything from durable water bottles to airplanes uses plastic in their construction. But these strong bonds can also make it hard to break down these materials, and many things made of plastic never break down and end up causing pollution and damage when they make their way into the environment.

Advances are also being made in this field, and a new enzyme was just created that can break down plastics naturally. This provides a possible new avenue for recycling carbon-based plastics instead of incineration or putting them into a landfill.

Physical Properties of Carbon

Carbon is a nonmetal solid at room temperature with very high melting and boiling points. More characteristics of carbon are listed below.

  • Sodium Symbol: C
  • Melting point: 3550 oC
  • Boiling point: 4827oC
  • Density: Depends on the form carbon in in. Diamond is 3.53 g/cm3
  • Atomic weight: 12.0096 amu
  • Atomic number: 12
  • Electronegativity: 2.55
  • Classification: Nonmetal
  • Electron shell configuration: [He]2s22p2
  • Isotopes: 2 stable isotopes and 14 radioactive isotopes
  • Toxicity: Elemental carbon has very low toxicity for humans

Where to buy the element carbon?

You can buy the element carbon from many locations depending on the form you want! Diamonds are one (more expensive!) form of carbon. Or the lead in your pencil is a different form of carbon.

Learn More!

Learn more about other elements!

If you enjoyed learning about carbon, check out our Interactive Periodic Table to explore other elements!