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Carbon is a naturally occurring element and can be found abundantly throughout the universe. As a matter of fact, it is the fourth most abundant element in our world after hydrogen, helium and oxygen. Most of us may not be aware of this but in our daily lives, carbon element is everywhere from the food we eat to the gasoline we use to fuel our cars. All living life-forms on Earth, including humans, are actually carbon based. Without it, life as we know, would not be possible on Earth.  

Most of the time, carbon exist in the form of carbon compounds. That means carbons are usually bonded to other elements to form chemical compounds. For example natural oils or crude oils are compounds of carbons and hydrogen (hydrocarbons). Pure carbons exist as diamonds, graphite and amorphous carbon (charcoal) on Earth. These pure carbons have extremely different physical properties just because they have different molecular structures. For example, diamond is transparent and the hardest known material known to man. Graphite on the other hand is opaque and very soft. Despite the large difference in appearance and physical properties, both are made from the same carbon element.

Looking at its properties, carbon has an atomic number of 6 and therefore always has 6 protons in its nucleus and 6 electrons surrounding it. Its density is at 1.8-2.1 (amorphous form). There is no melting point for carbon at normal atmospheric pressure. It can only be melted under high pressure (10 times our normal atmospheric pressure) and heated to an extreme temperature of above 3550 °C. Most steels only have melting points ranging from 700 °C to 1200 °C. Carbon is also one of the most nonreactive and non-toxic element. It does not react with most acids and alkalines.    

Applications of carbon are very wide and extensive. Diamonds are favorites when it comes to jewelry. In rare cases it is also use as a cutting tool because of its superior hardness. Charcoal is use for energy production and heating. There are significant numbers of coal power plants in the world. In 2006, 41% of the world’s generated electricity is from coal power plants. Graphite on the other hand is commonly used as the lead in our pencils.

Carbon compounds are even more widely use because of its extensive combinations. Perhaps the most used carbon compounds are the hydrocarbons (petroleum) which we use as fossil fuels. Carbon polymers are also common. We know them as wool, cashmeres and silks which we use for our clothes and apparel. In the Iron and Steel industry, carbons are used specifically as a common alloying element because of its hardening properties and relatively cheap commercial value. As much as 90% of the world’s steel productions are carbon steels which contain carbon as its main alloying element.

Although the carbon element has been known to man since antiquity, new development and research is still being conducted on this element. The most recent is the discovery of another new type of pure carbon called Fullerene. Fullerene has been seen as the new development in nanotechnology. Until then, much researches and experiments need to be done on this new type of pure carbon, before it can be fully commercialized. Until then, the world awaits.     

More about this author: Henry Chew

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