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The Element Carbon

boron – carbon – nitrogen
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Name, Symbol, Number Carbon, C, 6
Chemical series Nonmetals
Group, Period, Block 14 (IVA), 2, p
Density, Hardness 2267 kg/m3,
0.5 (graphite)
10.0 (diamond)
Appearance black (graphite)
colourless (diamond)
Atomic properties
Atomic weight 12.0107 amu
Atomic radius (calc.) 70 (67)pm
Covalent radius 77 pm
van der Waals radius 170 pm
Electron configuration [He]2s22p2
e- 's per energy level 2, 4
Oxidation states (Oxide) 4, 2 (mildly acidic)
Crystal structure Hexagonal
Physical properties
State of matter solid (nonmagnetic)
Melting point 3773 K (6332 °F)
Boiling point 5100 K (8721 °F)
Molar volume 5.29 ×10-6 m3/mol
Heat of vaporization 355.8 kJ/mol (sublimes)
Heat of fusion N/A (sublimes)
Vapor pressure 0 Pa
Speed of sound 18350 m/s
Electronegativity 2.55 (Pauling scale)
Specific heat capacity 710 J/(kg*K)
Electrical conductivity 0.061 × 106/m ohm
Thermal conductivity 129 W/(m*K)
1st ionization potential 1086.5 kJ/mol
2nd ionization potential 2352.6 kJ/mol
3rd ionization potential 4620.5 kJ/mol
4th ionization potential 6222.7 kJ/mol
5th ionization potential 37831 kJ/mol
6th ionization potential 47277.0 kJ/mol
Most stable isotopes
iso NA half-life DM DE MeV DP
12C 98.9% C is stable with 6 neutrons
13C 1.1% C is stable with 7 neutrons
14C trace 5730 y beta- 0.156 14N
SI units & STP are used except where noted.

Carbon is the chemical element in the periodic table that has the symbol C and atomic number 6. An abundant nonmetallic, tetravalent element, carbon has several allotropic forms:

  • diamonds (hardest known mineral). Binding structure: 4 electrons in 3-dimensional so-called sp3-orbitals
  • graphite (one of the softest substances). Binding structure: 3 electrons in 2-dimensional sp2-orbitals and 1 electron in s-orbitals.
  • Covalent bound sp1 orbitals are of chemical interest only.

Fullerite (fullerenes) are nanometer-scale molecules. In the simple form 60 carbon atoms form a graphitic layer which is bent to a 3-dimensional structure, similar to a soccer ball.

Lamp black consists of small graphitic areas. These areas are randomly distributed, so the whole structure is isotropic.

So-called 'glassy carbon' is isotropic and as strong as glass. Unlike normal graphite, the graphitic layers are not arranged like pages in a book, but are crumpled like crumpled paper.

Carbon fibers are similar to glassy carbon. Under special treatment (stretching of organic fibers and carbonization) it is possible to arrange the carbon planes in direction of the fiber. Perpendicular to the fiber axis there is no orientation of the carbon planes. The result are fibers with a higher specific strength than steel.

The element carbon occurs in all organic life and is the basis of organic chemistry. This nonmetal also has the interesting chemical property of being able to bond with itself and a wide variety of other elements, forming nearly 10 million known compounds. When united with oxygen it forms carbon dioxide which is absolutely vital to plant growth. When united with hydrogen, it forms various compounds called hydrocarbons which are essential to industry in the form of fossil fuels. When combined with both oxygen and hydrogen it can form many groups of compounds including fatty acids, which are essential to life, and esters, which give flavor to many fruits. The isotope carbon-14 is commonly used in radioactive dating.

Notable characteristics

Carbon is a remarkable element for many reasons. Its different forms include one of the softest (graphite) and one of the hardest (diamond) substances known to man. Moreover, it has a great affinity for bonding with other small atoms, including other carbon atoms, and its small size makes it capable of forming multiple bonds. Because of these properties, carbon is known to form nearly ten million different compounds. Carbon compounds form the basis of all life on Earth and the carbon-nitrogen cycle provides some of the energy produced by the sun and other stars.

Carbon was not created in the big bang due to the fact that it needs a triple collision of alpha particles (helium nuclei) to be produced. The universe initially expanded and cooled too fast for that to be possible. It is produced, however, in the interior of stars in the horizontal branch, where stars transform a helium core into carbon by means of the triple-alpha process.


The element carbon is a vital component of all known living systems, and without it life as we know it could not exist (see carbon chauvinism). The major economic use of carbon is in the form of hydrocarbons, most notably the fossil fuels methane gas and crude oil. Crude oil is used by the petrochemical industry to produce, amongst others, petroleum, gasoline and kerosene, through a distillation process, in so-called refineries. Crude oil forms the raw material for many synthetic substances, many of which are collectively called plastics.

Other uses:

  • The isotope 14C, discovered February 27th, 1940, is used in radiocarbon dating.
  • Some smoke detectors use tiny amounts of a radioactive isotope of carbon as source of ionizing radiation (Most smoke detectors of this type use an isotope of Americium)
  • Graphite is combined with clays to form the 'lead' used in pencils.
  • Diamond is used for decorative purposes, and also as drill bits and other applications making use of its hardness.
  • Carbon is added to iron to make steel.
  • Carbon is used for control rods in nuclear reactors.
  • Graphite carbon in a powdered, caked form is used as charcoal for cooking, artwork and other uses.
  • Charcoal pills are used in medicine in pill or powder form to adsorb toxins or poisons from the digestive system.

The chemical and structural properties of fullerenes, in the form of carbon nanotubes, has promising potential uses in the nascent field of nanotechnology.


Carbon (Latin carbo meaning "charcoal") was discovered in prehistory and was known to the ancients, who manufactured it by burning organic material in insufficient oxygen (making charcoal). Diamonds have long been considered rare and beautiful. The last-known allotrope of carbon, fullerenes, were discovered as byproducts of molecular beam experiments in the 1980's.


Four allotropes of carbon are known to exist: amorphous, graphite, diamond and fullerenes. The discovery of a fifth form was announced on March 22, 2004 [1] (http://www.nature.com/nsu/040322/040322-5.html).

In its amorphous form, carbon is essentially graphite but not held in a crystalline macrostructure. It is, rather, present as a powder which is the main constituent of substances such as charcoal and lamp black (soot).

At normal pressures carbon takes the form of graphite, in which each atom is bonded to three others in a plane composed of fused hexagonal rings, just like those in aromatic hydrocarbons. The two known forms of graphite, alpha (hexagonal) and beta (rhombohedral), both have identical physical properties, except for their crystal structure. Graphites that naturally occur have been found to contain up to 30% of the beta form, when synthetically-produced graphite only contains the alpha form. The alpha form can be converted to the beta form through mechanical treatment and the beta form reverts back to the alpha form when it is heated above 1000 °C.

Because of the delocalization of the pi-cloud, graphite conducts electricity. The material is soft and the sheets, frequently separated by other atoms, are held together only by van der Waals forces, so easily slip past one another.

At very high pressures carbon has an allotrope called diamond, in which each atom is bonded to four others. Diamond has the same cubic structure as silicon and germanium and, thanks to the strength of the carbon-carbon bonds, is together with the isoelectronic boron nitride (BN) the hardest substance in terms of resistance to scratching. The transition to graphite at room temperature is so slow as to be unnoticeable. Under some conditions, carbon crystallizes as Lonsdaleite, a form similar to diamond but hexagonal.

Fullerenes have a graphite-like structure, but instead of purely hexagonal packing, also contain pentagons (or possibly heptagons) of carbon atoms, which bend the sheet into spheres, ellipses or cylinders. The properties of fullerenes (also called "buckyballs" and "buckytubes") have not yet been fully analyzed. All the names of fullerenes are after Buckminster Fuller, developer of the geodesic dome, which mimics the structure of "buckyballs".


There are nearly ten million carbon compounds that are known to science and many thousands of these are vital to life processes and very economically important organic-based reactions. This element is abundant in the sun, stars, comets, and in the atmospheres of most planets. Some meteorites contain microscopic diamonds that were formed when the solar system was still a protoplanetary disk. In combination with other elements, carbon is found the earth's atmosphere and dissolved in all bodies of water. With smaller amounts of calcium, magnesium, and iron, it is a major component of very large masses carbonate rock (limestone, dolomite, marble etc.). When combined with hydrogen, carbon form coal, petroleum, and natural gas which are called hydrocarbons.

Graphite is found in large quantities in New York and Texas, the United States; Russia; Mexico; Greenland and India.

Natural diamonds occur in the mineral kimberlite found in ancient volcanic "necks," or "pipes". Most diamond deposits are in Africa, notably in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, the Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone. There are also deposits in Canada, the Russian Arctic, Brazil and in Northern and Western Australia.

Inorganic compounds

The most prominent oxide of carbon is carbon dioxide, CO2. This is a minor component of the Earth's atmosphere, produced and used by living things, and a common volatile elsewhere. In water it forms trace amounts of carbonic acid, H2CO3, but as most compounds with multiple single-bonded oxygens on a single carbon it is unstable. Through this intermediate, though, resonance-stabilized carbonate ions are produced. Some important minerals are carbonates, notably calcite. Carbon disulfide, CS2, is similar.

The other oxides are carbon monoxide, CO, and the uncommon carbon suboxide, C3O2. Carbon monoxide is formed by incomplete combustion, and is a colorless, odorless gas. The molecules each contain a triple bond and are fairly polar, resulting in a tendency to bind permanently to hemoglobin molecules, so that the gas is highly poisonous. Cyanide, CN-, has a similar structure and behaves a lot like a halide ion; the nitride cyanogen, (CN)2, is related.

With strong metals carbon forms either carbides, C-, or acetylides, C22-; these are associated with methane and acetylene, both incredibly pathetic acids. All in all, with an electronegativity of 2.5, carbon prefers to form covalent bonds. A few carbides are covalent lattices, like carborundum, SiC, which resembles diamond.

Carbon chains

It´s the atomic structure of hydrocarbons in which a series of carbon atoms, saturated by hydrogen atoms, form a chain. Volatile oils have shorter chains. Fats have longer chain lengths, and waxes have extremely long chains.

Carbon cycle

The continuous process of combining and releasing carbon and oxygen thereby storing and emitting heat and energy. Catabolism + anabolism = metabolism. See carbon cycle.


In 1961 the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry adopted the isotope carbon-12 for basis for atomic weights.

  • Carbon-14 is a radioisotope with a half-life of 5715 years and has been used extensively for radiocarbon dating wood, archaeological sites and specimens.

Carbon has two stable, naturally-occurring isotopes: C-12 (98.89%) and C-13 (1.11%). Ratios of these isotopes are reported in ? relative to the standard VPDB (Vienna Pee Dee Belemnite from the Peedee Formation of South Carolina). The dC-13 of the atmosphere is -7?. During photosynthesis, the carbon that becomes fixed in plant tissue is significantly depleted in C-13 relative to the atmosphere.

There is two mode distribution in the dC-13 values of terrestrial plants resulting from differences in the photosynthetic reaction used by the plant. Most terrestrial plants are C3 pathway plants and have dC-13 values range from -24 to -34?. A second category of plants (C4 pathway plants), composed of aquatic plants, desert plants, salt marsh plants, and tropical grasses, have dC-13 values that range from -6 to -19. An intermediate group (CAM plants) composed of algae and lichens has dC-13 values range from -12 to -23?. The dC-13 of plants and organisms can provide useful information about sources of nutrients and food web relations.


Compounds of carbon have a wide range of toxic action. Carbon monoxide (CO), which is present in the exhaust of combustion engines, and cyanide (CN-), which is sometimes in mining pollution, are extremely toxic to mammals. Many other carbon compounds are not toxic and are in fact absolutely essential for life. Organic gases such as ethene (CH2=CH2), ethyne (HCCH), and methane (CH4) are dangerously explosive and flammable when mixed with air.


External links

Carbon Activities
Carbon Molecule
Carbon 3-D
Chime Tutorial
Graphene Molecule
More on Carbon Fullerenes
Simple Carbon Compounds
Carbon *.pdb Files
Carbon atoms in methane
Diamond -- Carbon
Graphite -- Carbon





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