Carbon a Definition

Carbon is the chemical element with symbol C and atomic number 6. As a member of group 14 on the periodic table, it is nonmetallic and tetravalent—making four electrons available to form covalent chemical bonds. There are three naturally occurring isotopes, with 12C and 13C being stable, while 14C is radioactive, decaying with a half-life of about 5,730 years.

Carbon is the 15th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, and the fourth most abundant element in the universe by mass after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen. It is present in all known life forms, and in the human body carbon is the second most abundant element by mass (about 18.5%) after oxygen. This abundance, together with the unique diversity of organic compounds and their unusual polymer-forming ability at the temperatures commonly encountered on Earth, make this element the chemical basis of all known life.

The different forms or allotropes of carbon include the hardest naturally occurring substance, diamond, and also one of the softest known substances, graphite. Moreover, it has an affinity for bonding with other small atoms, including other carbon atoms, and is capable of forming multiple stable covalent bonds with such atoms. As a result, carbon is known to form almost ten million different compounds; the large majority of all chemical compounds.

Atomic carbon is a very short-lived species and, therefore, carbon is stabilized in various multi-atomic structures with different molecular configurations called allotropes. The three relatively well-known allotropes of carbon are amorphous carbon, graphite, and diamond. Once considered exotic, fullerenes are nowadays commonly synthesized and used in research; they include buckyballs, carbon nanotubes, carbon nanobuds and nanofibers. Several other exotic allotropes have also been discovered, such as lonsdaleite, glassy carbon, carbon nanofoam and linear acetylenic carbon (carbyne).


Commercially viable natural deposits of graphite occur in many parts of the world, but the most important sources economically are in China, India, Brazil and North Korea. Graphite deposits are of metamorphic origin, found in association with quartz, mica and feldspars in schists, gneisses and metamorphosed sandstones and limestone as lenses or veins, sometimes of a meter or more in thickness. Deposits of graphite in Borrowdale, Cumberland, England were at first of sufficient size and purity that, until the 19th century, pencils were made simply by sawing blocks of natural graphite into strips before encasing the strips in wood. Today, smaller deposits of graphite are obtained by crushing the parent rock and floating the lighter graphite out on water.


The diamond supply chain is controlled by a limited number of powerful businesses, and is also highly concentrated in a small number of locations around the world. Only a very small fraction of the diamond ore consists of actual diamonds. The ore is crushed, during which care has to be taken in order to prevent larger diamonds from being destroyed in this process and subsequently the particles are sorted by density. Today, diamonds are located in the diamond-rich density fraction with the help of X-ray fluorescence, after which the final sorting steps are done by hand. Before the use of X-rays became commonplace, the separation was done with grease belts; diamonds have a stronger tendency to stick to grease than the other minerals in the ore.

The major economic use of carbon other than food and wood is in the form of hydrocarbons, most notably the fossil fuel methane gas and crude oil (petroleum). Crude oil is used by the petrochemical industry to produce, amongst other things, gasoline and kerosene, through a distillation process, in refineries. Cellulose is a natural, carbon-containing polymer produced by plants in the form of cotton, linen, and hemp. Cellulose is mainly used for maintaining structure in plants. Commercially valuable carbon polymers of animal origin include wool, cashmere and silk. Plastics are made from synthetic carbon polymers, often with oxygen and nitrogen atoms included at regular intervals in the main polymer chain. The raw materials for many of these synthetic substances come from crude oil.

The uses of carbon and its compounds are extremely varied. It can form alloys with iron, of which the most common is carbon steel. Graphite is combined with clays to form the ‘lead’ used in pencils used for writing and drawing. It is also used as a lubricant and a pigment, as a molding material in glass manufacture, in electrodes for dry batteries and in electroplating and electroforming, in brushes for electric motors and as a neutron moderator in nuclear reactors.

Charcoal is used as a drawing material in artwork, for grilling, and in many other uses including iron smelting. Wood, coal and oil are used as fuel for production of energy and space heating. Gem quality diamond is used in jewelry, and industrial diamonds are used in drilling, cutting and polishing tools for machining metals and stone. Plastics are made from fossil hydrocarbons, and carbon fiber, made by pyrolysis of synthetic polyester fibers is used to reinforce plastics to form advanced, lightweight composite materials. Carbon fiber is made by pyrolysis of extruded and stretched filaments of polyacrylonitrile (PAN) and other organic substances. The crystallographic structure and mechanical properties of the fiber depend on the type of starting material, and on the subsequent processing. Carbon fibers made from PAN have structure resembling narrow filaments of graphite, but thermal processing may re-order the structure into a continuous rolled sheet. The result is fibers with higher specific tensile strength than steel.

Carbon black is used as the black pigment in printing ink, artist’s oil paint and water colours, carbon paper, automotive finishes, India ink and laser printer toner. Carbon black is also used as a filler in rubber products such as tyres and in plastic compounds. Activated charcoal is used as an absorbent and adsorbent in filter material in applications as diverse as gas masks, water purification and kitchen extractor hoods and in medicine to absorb toxins, poisons, or gases from the digestive system. Carbon is used in chemical reduction at high temperatures. Coke is used to reduce iron ore into iron. Case hardening of steel is achieved by heating finished steel components in carbon powder. Carbides of silicon, tungsten, boron and titanium, are among the hardest known materials, and are used as abrasives in cutting and grinding tools. Carbon compounds make up most of the materials used in clothing, such as natural and synthetic textiles and leather, and almost all of the interior surfaces in the built environment other than glass, stone and metal.

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