The History of Carbon
A. The History of Carbon
II. Occurrences in Nature
C. Coal and Charcoal
D. Amorphous Carbon
III. Carbon Compounds
IV. The Carbon Cycle
Carbon, an element discovered before history itself, is one of the most
abundant elements in the universe. It can be found in the sun, the stars,
comets, and the atmospheres of most planets. There are close to ten million
known carbon compounds, many thousands of which are vital to the basis of life
itself (WWW 1).
Carbon occurs in many forms in nature. One of its purest forms is diamond.
Diamond is the hardest substance known on earth. Although diamonds found in
nature are colorless and transparent, when combined with other elements its
color can range from pastels to black. Diamond is a poor conductor of heat and
electricity. Until 1955 the only sources of diamond were found in deposits of
volcanic origin. Since then scientists have found ways to make diamond from
graphite and other synthetic materials. Diamonds of true gem quality are not
made in this way (Beggott 3-4).
Graphite is another form of carbon. It occurs as a mineral in nature, but it
can be made artificially from amorphous carbon. One of the main uses for
graphite is for its lubricating qualities. Another is for the lead in pencils.
Graphite is used as a heat resistant material and an electricity conductor. It
is also used in nuclear reactors as a lubricator (Kino*censored*a 119-127).
Amorphous carbon is a deep black powder that occurs in nature as a component of
coal. It may be obtained artificially from almost any organic substance by
heating the substance to very high temperatures without air. Using this method,
coke is produced from coal, and charcoal is produced from wood. Amorphous
carbon is the most reactive form of carbon. Because amorphous carbon burns
easily in air, it is used as a combustion fuel. The most important uses for
amorphous carbon are as a filler for rubber and as a black pigment in paint (WWW
There are two kinds of carbon compounds. The first is inorganic. Inorganic
compounds are binary compounds of carbon with metals or metal carbides. They
have properties ranging from reactive and saltlike; found in metals such as
sodium, magnesium, and aluminum, to an unreactive and metallic, such as titanium
and niobium (Beggott 4).
Carbon compounds containing nonmetals are usually gases or liquids with low
boiling points. Carbon monoxide, a gas, is odorless, colorless, and tasteless.
It forms during the incomplete combustion of carbon (Kino*censored*a 215-223). It is
highly toxic to animals because it inhibits the transport of oxygen in the blood
by hemoglobin (WWW 2). Carbon dioxide is a colorless, almost odorless gas that
is formed by the combustion of carbon. It is a product that results from
respiration in most living organisms and is used by plants as a source of carbon.
Frozen carbon dioxide, known as dry ice, is used as a refrigerant.
Fluorocarbons, such as Freon, are used as refrigerants (Kino*censored*a 225-226).
Organic compounds are those compounds that occur in nature. The simplest
organic compounds consist of only carbon and hydrogen, the hydrocarbons. The
state of matter for organic compounds depends on how many carbons are contained
in it. If a compound has up to four carbons it is a gas, if it has up to 20
carbons it is a liquid, and if it has more than 20 carbons it is a solid
The carbon cycle is the system of biological and chemical processes that make
carbon available to living things for use in tissue building and energy release
(Kino*censored*a 242). All living cells are composed of proteins consisting of carbon,
hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen in various combinations, and each living organism
puts these elements together according to its own genetic code. To do this the
organism must have these available in special compounds built around carbon.
These special compounds are produced only by plants, by the process of
photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is a process in which chlorophyll traps and uses
energy from the sun in the form of light. Six molecules of carbon dioxide
combine with six molecules of water to form one molecule of glucose (sugar).
The glucose molecule consists of six atoms of carbon, twelve of hydrogen, and
six of oxygen. Six oxygen molecules, consisting of two oxygen atoms each, are
also produced and are discharged into the atmosphere unless the plant needs
energy to live. In that case, the oxygen combines with the glucose immediately,
releasing six molecules of carbon dioxide and six of water for each molecule of
glucose (Beggott 25-32). The carbon cycle is then completed as the plant
obtains the energy that was stored by the glucose. The length of time required
to complete the cycle varies. In plants without an immediate need for energy,
the chemical processes continue in a variety of ways. By reducing the hydrogen
and oxygen content of most of the sugar molecules by one water molecule and
combining them to form large molecules, plants produce substances such as starch,
inulin , and fats and store them for future use. Regardless of whether the
stored food is used later by the plant or consumed by some other organism, the
molecules will ultimately be digested and oxidized, and carbon dioxide and water
will be discharged. Other molecules of sugar undergo a series of chemical
changes and are finally combined with nitrogen compounds to form protein
substances, which are then used to build tissues (WWW 2).
Although protein substances may pass from organism to organism, eventually
these too are oxidized and form carbon dioxide and water as cells wear out and
are broken down, or as the organisms die. In either case, a new set of
organisms, ranging from fungi to the large scavengers, use the waste products or
tissues for food, digesting and oxidizing the substances for energy release (WWW
At various times in the Earth’s history, some plant and animal tissues have
been protected by erosion and sedimentation from the natural agents of
decomposition and converted into substances such as peat, lignite, petroleum,
and coal. The carbon cycle, temporarily interrupted in this manner, is
completed as fuels are burned, and carbon dioxide and water are again added to
the atmosphere for reuse by living things, and the solar energy stored by
photosynthesis ages ago is released (Kino*censored*a 273-275).
Almost everything around us today has some connection with carbon or a carbon
compound. Carbon is in every living organism. Without carbon life would not
exist as we know it.