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What is Carbon?

Chemistry | 7-14 yrs | Interactive, Learning Pod

Introduction of Carbon

The element Carbon is the basis of all human life. The word carbon in English is derived from the Latin name for burnt wood, carbo. It is denoted in the periodic table with the symbol C. It is the 4th most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and the second most in the human body after oxygen.

Any chemical compound that contains carbon whether it is a solid, liquid, or gas, is known as an organic compound. The word organic is often used to specifically talk about carbon compounds that are made by or related to living things. However, this is not the scientifically correct usage of the word, since all carbon compounds are in fact organic.

Just as you encounter hydrogen (in the form of water), and oxygen (when you breathe), you also encounter carbon in numerous ways every day of your life. A can of cola has dissolved carbon dioxide which is why soda is bubbly; a form of carbon known as graphite is what the lead in your pencil is made from; when you barbecue those yummy vegetables on the grill you use charcoal to produce heat; even the medicine you take to fight an infection is a carbon compound!


Civilisations have made use of carbon since pre-history, mainly in the form of charcoal. It was only in the 18th century that the element Carbon was discovered. No 1 person can be solely considered responsible for this discovery since it was identified as an element through a series of experiments. The three most important ones are explained below.

Antoine Lavoisier

A Frenchman named Antoine Lavoisier was one of the earliest persons to put forth the theory that carbon was an element in 1789. He conducted a simple experiment where he burnt an equal amount of charcoal and diamond . He found that he got equal amounts of carbon dioxide by-product from the two processes. This lead him to believe that diamond and charcoal had to be made of the same element.

Carl Wilhelm Scheele

Scheele was a German scientist who conducted a similar test to Lavoisier’s. However, in his experience, Scheele utilised a different form of carbon known as graphite, which was previously considered a form of lead. In his experiment he also got equal amounts of carbon dioxide for every gram of graphite and coal that he burnt.

René-Antoine Ferchault de Réamur

René-Antoine Ferchault de Réamur was a researcher in many scientific fields of study. He demonstrated through a metallurgical process that steel is produced when the element Iron absorbed a substance known to be Carbon.

This research conducted by top scientists confirmed the existence of the chemical Carbon as a complex element that humans had been using in various forms already.


Carbon has many allotropes. An allotrope is a scientific name for any substance that can exist in multiple forms. Allotropy is the property of any chemical element to exist in multiple forms. This means that the atomic structure of the element differs from one to the next even though they are made up of the same basic building block. The most common allotropes of carbon are diamond, graphite, and amorphous carbon.

Click HERE to learn more about allotropes of Carbon.

Organic Chemistry

The element Carbon has so many uses and functions that there is an entire section in chemistry known as Organic Chemistry dedicated to studying it. Organic chemistry deals with the infinite combinations of compounds that carbon is able to form with hydrogen and other elements.

Organic chemistry is very important in the realm of invention because of its ability to form strong bonds with multiple other elements. The simplest organic molecule is a hydrocarbon which is made up of only carbon and hydrogen atoms. When multiple hydrocarbons bond with each other they form what is known as a polymer. You have probably come across this in the form of plastic, or the fabric polyester.


The main source of carbon is coal. About 95% of carbon extracts are from anthracite, a highly pure variety of mineral coal that has a high luster. It is referred to by many names such as black coal, hard coal, stone coal, and black diamond. The largest fields of anthracite coal are found in the state of Pennsylvania. The demand for coal in the world is very high because it is used on an industrial scale to produce energy. This makes it a highly tradable commodity in the global market.

Further Research

  • Find out the different ways in which coal is extracted from the earth before it is used to produce energy.
  • What are some common uses of the allotrope of carbon- graphite?
  • Can you find some other polymers of carbon besides plastic?

For more such interesting chemistry articles and videos, visit: http://mocomi.com/learn/science/chemistry/