Five things you didn’t know about … Carbon

Next up I’ve decided to write about carbon. Granted, I’m expecting you’re not exactly falling off your seats with excitement over my choice of topic, but carbon is a surprisingly interesting, useful and complicated element:

  1.  One of the most renowned materials in the world, Diamond, comprises of nothing more than carbon atoms arranged in a particular crystalline structure. Diamond is almost the hardest structure known to man and is topped only by manmade diamond variations such as “aggregated diamond nanorods.” Due to the nature of the carbons’ structure, although diamonds may be extremely hard and resistant to scratching and cutting, they aren’t necessarily as strong as other materials. One can quite easily shatter a diamond with the swing of a hammer, whereas a much softer material like iron would resist a blow of similar force with relative ease.

    Zimbres via Wikimedia Commons


  2. Another rather structural form carbon takes is graphene. You may be less familiar with this one, but in many ways it’s just as impressive as a diamond. Graphene has a honeycomb (or hexagonal) structure of carbon atoms, densely packed and made in sheets just a single atom in thickness. You may have even heard of graphite being used in pencils. Well, this is just a term for several layers of graphene. Graphene has the advantage of being 200 times stronger than steel, is super-thin and lightweight and (like silicone) can be used as a semi-conductor (a material that can be coerced into being a conductor or an insulator, giving the “on or off” system computers rely on). This is why many think that graphene may proceed silicone in future waves of computer chips; commonly associated with the term of a “carbon age.”

    AlexanderAlUS via Wikipedia Commons

    One of the best conceptual ideas which uses graphene is the “Nokia Morph,” a concept phone by Nokia by whereby graphene facilitates this highly durable yet malleable touch screen device.


  3. Sci-fi buffs may recollect the phrase “carbon based life form.” We, as humans, fall into this category; the mass of a human body is made up of approximately 10% carbon. Carbon is basically the framework of our bodies, making it possible for us to use significant quantities of oxygen hydrogen and nitrogen (all four of these elements making up over 99% of our body mass). Carbon is such a useful element for our bodily framework because of its valence electrons; carbon has four valence electrons in its outermost electron shell. This outer shell can contain up to eight electrons, and due to the nature of an atom’s electrons, carbon is very willing to “share” these valence electrons to effectively fill up or empty its outer shell. Put simply, this means carbon is a very friendly element, with four extra points by which to share electrons with others such as oxygen and hydrogen. This “sharing” forms a covalent bond, which in turn produces complex molecules that make up our bodies.


  4. All organic material contains carbon to some degree, including a carbon isotope (carbon atoms with a neutron imbalance) called carbon-14 or radiocarbon. This element is used in “radiocarbon dating,” a process by which organic materials can be dated. Using the knowledge of carbon 14 half-life (the time it takes for half of a sample to decay, for carbon 14 around 5,700 years), this process can be used to date materials up to around 60,000 years ago, making it particularly useful for dating materials that may have been significant in our past as humans. This can be combined with dendrochronology (dating the age of trees using their rings) to gain significant results for the age of trees or other organic materials.


  5. To round off, there is also something that we as mankind can appreciate, and that is fire or “combustion” to be precise. It is one of the simplest and most effective ways of easily releasing energy for anything from cooking, keeping yourself warm, running a car or even lighting lanterns. We are sadly still pretty reliant on fossil fuels (like coal, oil or natural gas) which are largely carbon-based (hydrocarbon) materials. Also, in burning other materials like wood, carbon is used and released by combustion.


Berger via Wikimedia Commons


On a further note, carbon’s most useful asset is by far its diversity of use. It can be burnt to release energy, used to create strong vehicle chassis’, is essential as a framework for all life on earth, can form materials from the hardest known to man (diamond) to some of the softest (graphite), is usable as a tool, for jewellery, woven materials, writing, computer chips and the list goes on and on. It is a truly remarkable element.