The phrase “carbon-based life forms,” often used in science-fiction topics and movies by aliens to describe the creatures of Earth, is something of a cliche. It is also a redundancy when applied to creatures on Earth, the only planet known to support life: all living things contain carbon. Carbon is also in plenty of things that were once living, which makes it useful for dating the remains of past settlements on Earth. Of even greater usefulness is petroleum, a substance containing carbon-based forms that died long ago, became fossilized, and ultimately changed chemically into fuels. Then again, not all materials containing carbon were once living creatures; yet because carbon is a common denominator to all living things on Earth, the branch of study known as organic chemistry is devoted to the study of compounds containing carbon. Among the most important organic compounds are the many carboxylic acids that are vital to life, but carbon is also present in numerous important inorganic compounds—most notably carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

How it works

The Basics of Carbon

Carbon’s name comes from the Latin word carbo, or charcoal—which, indeed, is almost pure carbon. Its chemical symbol is C, and it has an atomic number of 6, meaning that there are six protons in its nucleus. Its two stable isotopes are 12C, which constitutes 98.9% of all carbon found in nature, and 13C, which accounts for the other 1.1%.
The mass of the 12C atom is the basis for the atomic mass unit (amu), by which mass figures
for all other elements are measured: the amu is defined as exactly 1/12 the mass of a single 12C atom. The difference in mass between 12C and 13C, which is heavier because of its extra neutron, account for the fact that the atomic mass of carbon is 12.01 amu: were it not for the small quantities of 13C present in a sample of carbon, the mass would be exactly 12.00 amu.

Where carbon is found

Carbon makes up only a small portion of the known elemental mass in Earth’s crust, oceans, and atmosphere—just 0.08%, or 1/1250 of the whole—yet it is the fourteenth most abundant element on the planet. In the human body, carbon is second only to oxygen in abundance, and accounts for 18% of the body’s mass. Thus if a person weighs 100 lb (45.3 kg), she is carrying around 18 lb (8.2 kg) of carbon—the same material from which diamonds are made!
Present in the inorganic rocks of the ground and in the living creatures above it, carbon is everywhere. Combined with other elements, it forms carbonates, most notably calcium carbonate (CaCO3), which appears in the form of limestone, marble, and chalk. In combination with hydrogen, it creates hydrocarbons, present in deposits of fossil fuels: natural gas, petroleum, and coal. In the environment, carbon—in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2)—is taken in by plants, which undergo the process of photosynthesis and release oxygen to animals. Animals breathe in oxygen and release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Carbon and Bonding

Located in Group 4 of the periodic table of elements (Group 14 in the IUPAC system), carbon has a valence electron configuration of 2s22p2;
likewise, all the members of Group 4—some-times known as the “carbon family”—have configurations of ns2np2,where n is the number of the period or row that the element occupies on the table.
There are two elements noted for their ability to form long strings of atoms and seemingly endless varieties of molecules: one is carbon, and the other is silicon, directly below it on the periodic table. Silicon, found in virtually all types of rocks except the calcium carbonates (mentioned above), is to the inorganic world what carbon is to the organic. Yet silicon atoms are about one and a half times as large as those of carbon; thus not even silicon can compete with carbon’s ability to form a seemingly limitless array of molecules in various shapes and sizes, and having various chemical properties.

Basics of chemical bonding

Carbon is further distinguished by its high value of electronegativity, the relative ability of an atom to attract valence electrons. Electronegativity increases with an increase in group number, and decreases with an increase in period number. In other words, the elements with the highest electronegativity values lie in the upper right-hand corner of the periodic table.
Actually, the previous statement requires one significant qualification: the extreme right-hand side of the periodic table is occupied by elements with negligible electronegativity values. These are the noble gases, which have eight valence electrons each. Eight, as it turns out, is the “magic number” for chemical bonding: most elements follow what is known as the octet rule, meaning that when one element bonds to another, the two atoms have eight valence electrons.
If the two atoms have an electric charge and thus are ions, they form strong ionic bonds. Ionic bonding occurs when a metal bonds with a non-metal. The other principal type of bond is a covalent bond, in which two uncharged atoms share eight valence electrons. If the electronegativity values of the two elements involved are equal, they share the electrons equally; but if one element has a higher electronegativity value, the electrons will be more drawn to that element.

Electronegativity of carbon

To return to electronegativity and the periodic table, let us ignore the noble gases, which are the chemical equivalent of snobs.
(Hence the term “noble,” meaning that they are set apart.) To the left of the noble gases are the halogens, a wildly gregarious bunch—none more so than the element that occupies the top of the column, fluorine. With an electronegativity value of 4.0, fluorine is the most reactive of all elements, and the only one capable of bonding even to a few of the noble gases.
So why is fluorine—capable of forming multitudinous bonds—not as chemically significant as carbon? There are a number of answers, but a simple one is this: because fluorine is too strong, and tends to “overwhelm” other elements, precluding the possibility of forming long chains, it is less chemically significant than carbon. Carbon, on the other hand, has an electronegativity value of 2.5, which places it well behind fluorine. Yet it is still at sixth place (in a tie with iodine and sulfur) on the periodic table, behind only fluorine; oxygen (3.5); nitrogen and chlorine (3.0); and bromine (2.8). In addition, with four valence electrons, carbon is ideally suited to find other elements (or other carbon atoms) for forming covalent bonds according to the octet rule.

Multiple bonds

Normally, an element does not necessarily have the ability to bond with as many other elements as it has valence electrons, but carbon—with its four valence electrons—happens to be tetravalent, or capable of bonding to four other atoms at once. Additionally, carbon is capable of forming not only a single bond, but also a double bond, or even a triple bond, with other elements.
Suppose a carbon atom bonds to two oxygen atoms to form carbon dioxide. Let us imagine these three atoms side by side, with the oxygen in the middle. (This, in fact, is how these bonds are depicted in the Couper and Lewis systems of chemical symbolism, discussed in the Chemical Bonding essay.) We know that the carbon has four valence electrons, that the oxygens have six, and that the goal is for each atom to have eight valence electrons—some of which it will share covalently.
Two of the valence electrons from the carbon bond with two valence electrons each from the oxygen atoms on either side. This means that the carbon is doubly bonded to each of the oxygen atoms. Therefore, the two oxygens each have four other unbonded valence electrons, which might bond to another atom. It is theoretically possible, also, for the carbon to form a triple bond with one of the oxygens by sharing three of its valence electrons. It would then have one electron free to share with the other oxygen.

Real-Life Applications

Organic Chemistry

We have stated that carbon forms tetravalent bonds, and makes multiple bonds with a single atom. In addition, we have mentioned the fact that carbon forms long chains of atoms and varieties of shapes. But how does it do these things, and why? These are good questions, but not ones we will attempt to answer here. In fact, an entire branch of chemistry is devoted to answering these theoretical questions, as well as to determining solutions to a host of other, more practical problems.
Organic chemistry is the study of carbon, its compounds, and their properties. (There are carbon-containing compounds that are not considered organic, however. Among these are oxides such as carbon dioxide and monoxide; as well as carbonates, most notably calcium carbonate.) At one time, chemists thought that “organic” was synonymous with “living,” and even as recently as the early nineteenth century, they believed that organic substances contained a supernatural “life force.” Then, in 1828, German chemist Friedrich Wohler (1800-1882) cracked the code that distinguished the living from the nonliving, and the organic from the inorganic.
Wohler took a sample of ammonium cyanate (NH4OCN), and by heating it, converted it into urea (H2N-CO-NH2), a waste product in the urine of mammals. In other words, he had turned an inorganic material into a organic one, and he did so, as he observed, “without benefit of a kidney, a bladder, or a dog.” It was almost as though he had created life. In fact, what Wohler had glimpsed—and what other scientists who followed came to understand, was this: what separates the organic from the inorganic is the manner in which the carbon chains are arranged.
Ammonium cyanate and urea have exactly the same numbers and proportions of atoms, yet they are different compounds. They are thus iso-mers: substances which have the same formula, but are different chemically. In urea, the carbon forms an organic chain, and in ammonium cyanate, it does not. Thus, to reduce the specifics of organic chemistry even further, it can be said that this area of the field constitutes the study of carbon chains, and ways to rearrange them in order to create new substances.
Rubber, vitamins, cloth, and paper are all organically based compounds we encounter in our daily lives. In each case, the material comes from something that once was living, but what truly makes these substance organic in nature is the common denominator of carbon, as well as the specific arrangements of the atoms. We have organic chemistry to thank for any number of things: aspirins and all manner of other drugs; preservatives that keep food from spoiling; perfumes and toiletries; dyes and flavorings, and so on.

Allotropes of Carbon

graphite. Carbon has several allotropes—different versions of the same element, distinguished by molecular structure. The first of these is graphite, a soft material with an unusual crystalline structure. Graphite is essentially a series of one-atom-thick sheets of carbon, bonded together in a hexagonal pattern, but with only very weak attractions between adjacent sheets. A piece of graphite is thus like a big, thick stack of carbon paper: on the one hand, the stack is heavy, but the sheets are likely to slide against one another.
Actually, people born after about 1980 may have little experience with carbon paper, which was gradually phased out as photocopiers became cheaper and more readily available. Today, carbon paper is most often encountered when signing a credit-card receipt: the signature goes through the graphite-based backing of the receipt, onto a customer copy.
In such a situation, one might notice that the copied image of the signature looks as though it were signed in pencil. This is not surprising, considering that pencil “lead” is, in fact, a mixture of graphite, clay, and wax. In ancient times, people did indeed use lead—the heaviest member of Group 4, the “carbon family”—for writing, because it left gray marks on a surface. Lead, of course, is poisonous, and is not used today in pencils or in most applications that would involve prolonged exposure of humans to the element. Nonetheless, people still use the word “lead” in reference to pencils, much as they still refer to a galvanized steel roof with a zinc coating as a “tin roof.”
In graphite the atoms of each “sheet” are tightly bonded in a hexagonal, or six-sided, pattern, but the attractions between the sheets are not very strong. This makes it highly useful as a lubricant for locks, where oil would tend to be messy. A good conductor of electricity, graphite is also utilized for making high-temperature electrolysis cells. In addition, the fact that graphite resists temperatures of up to about 6,332°F (3,500°C) makes it useful in electric motors and generators.


The second allotrope of carbon is also crystalline in structure. This is diamond, most familiar in the form of jewelry, but in fact widely applied for a number of other purposes. According to the Moh scale, which measures the hardness of minerals, diamond is a 10— in other words, the hardest type of material. It is used for making drills that bore through solid rock; likewise, small diamonds are used in dentists’ drills for boring through the ultra-hard enamel on teeth.
Neither diamonds nor graphite are, in the strictest sense of the term, formed of molecules. Their arrangement is definite, as with a molecule, but their size is not: they simply form repeating patterns that seem to stretch on forever. Whereas graphite is in the form of sheets, a diamond is basically a huge “molecule” composed of carbon atoms strung together by covalent bonds. The size of this “molecule” corresponds to the size of the diamond: a diamond of 1 carat, for instance, contains about 1022 (10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 or 10 billion billion) carbon atoms.
The diamonds used in industry look quite different from the ones that appear in jewelry. Industrial diamonds are small, dark, and cloudy in appearance, and though they have the same chemical properties as gem-quality diamonds, they are cut with functionality (rather than beauty) in mind. A diamond is hard, but brittle: in other words, it can be broken, but it is very difficult to scratch or cut a diamond—except with another diamond.
The cutting of fine diamonds for jewelry is an art, exemplified in the alluring qualities of such famous gems as the jewels in the British Crown or the infamous Hope Diamond in Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution. Such diamonds—as well as the diamonds on an engagement ring—are cut to refract or bend light rays, and to disperse the colors of visible light.


Until 1985, carbon was believed to exist in only two crystalline forms, graphite and diamond. In that year, however, chemists at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and at the University of Sussex in England, discovered a third variety of car-bon—and later jointly received a Nobel Prize for their work. This “new” carbon molecule composed of 60 bonded atoms in the shape of what is called a “hollow truncated icosahedron.” In plain language, this is rather like a soccer ball, with interlocking pentagons and hexagons. However, because the surface of each geometric shape is flat, the “ball” itself is not a perfect sphere. Rather, it describes the shape of a geodesic dome, a design created by American engineer and philosopher R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983).
There are other varieties of buckminster-fullerene molecules, known as fullerenes. However, the 60-atom shape, designated as 60C, is the most common of all fullerenes, the result of condensing carbon slowly at high temperatures. Fullerenes potentially have a number of applications, particularly because they exhibit a whole range of electrical properties: some are insulators, while some are conductors, semiconductors, and even superconductors. Due to the high cost of producing fullerenes artificially, however, the ways in which they are applied remain rather limited.

Amorphous carbon

There is a fourth way in which carbon appears, distinguished from the other three in that it is amorphous, as opposed to crystalline, in structure. An example of amorphous carbon is carbon black, obtained from smoky flames and used in ink, or for blacking rubber tires.
Though it retains some of the microscopic structures of the plant cells in the wood from which it is made, charcoal—wood or other plant material that has been heated without enough air present to make it burn—is mostly amorphous carbon. One form of charcoal is activated charcoal, in which steam is used to remove the sticky products of wood decomposition. What remains are porous grains of pure carbon with enormous microscopic surface areas. These are used in water purifiers and gas masks.
A geodesic dome in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Such domes are named after their designer, R. Buck-minster Fuller, and eventually provided the name for the carbon molecules known as buckminster-fullerenes.
A geodesic dome in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Such domes are named after their designer, R. Buck-minster Fuller, and eventually provided the name for the carbon molecules known as buckminster-fullerenes.
Coal and coke are particularly significant varieties of amorphous carbon. Formed by the decay of fossils, coal was one of the first “fossil fuels” (for example, petroleum) used to provide heat and power for industrial societies. Indeed, when the words “industrial revolution” are mentioned, many people picture tall black smokestacks belching smoke from coal fires. Fortunately— from an environmental standpoint—coal is not nearly so widely used today, and when it is (as for instance in electric power plants), the methods for burning it are much more efficient than those applied in the nineteenth century.
Actually, much of what those smokestacks of yesteryear burned was coke, a refined version of coal that contains almost pure carbon. Produced by heating soft coal in the absence of air, coke has a much greater heat value than coal, and is still widely used as a reducing agent in the production of steel and other alloys.

Carbon Dioxide

Carbon forms many millions of compounds, some families of which will be discussed below. Two others, formed by the bonding of carbon atoms with oxygen atoms, are of particular significance. In carbon dioxide, a single carbon
joins with two oxygens to produce a gas essential to plant life. In carbon monoxide (CO), a single oxygen joins the carbon, creating a toxic—but nonetheless important—compound.
The first gas to be distinguished from ordinary air, carbon dioxide is an essential component in the natural balance between plant and animal life. Animals, including humans, produce carbon dioxide by breathing, and humans further produce it by burning wood and other fuels. Plants use carbon dioxide when they store energy in the form offood, and they release oxygen to be used by animals.


Flemish chemist and physicist Johannes van Helmont (1579-1644) discovered in 1630 that air was not, as had been thought up to that time, a single element: it contained a second substance, produced in the burning of wood, which he called “gas sylvestre.” Thus he is recognized as the first scientist to note the existence of carbon dioxide.
More than a century later, in 1756, Scottish chemist Joseph Black (1728-1799) showed that carbon dioxide—which he called “fixed air”— combines with other chemicals to form compounds. This and other determinations Black made concerning carbon dioxide led to enor-
Soft drinks are made possible by the use of carbonated water.
Soft drinks are made possible by the use of carbonated water.
mous progress in the discovery of gases by various chemists of the late eighteenth century.
By that time, chemists had begun to arrive at a greater degree of understanding with regard to the relationship between plant life and carbon dioxide. Up until that time, it had been believed that plants purify the air by day, and poison it at night. Carbon dioxide and its role in the connection between animal and plant life provided a much more sophisticated explanation as to the ways plants “breathe.”


Around the same time that Black made his observations on carbon dioxide, English chemist Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) became the first scientist to put the chemical to use. Dissolving it in water, he created carbonated water, which today is used in making soft drinks. Not only does the gas add bubbles to drinks, it also acts as a preservative.
Though the natural uses of carbon dioxide are by far the most important, the compound has numerous industrial and commercial applications. Used in fire extinguishers, carbon dioxide is ideal for controlling electrical and oil fires, which cannot be put out with water. Heavier than air, carbon dioxide blankets the flames and smothers them.
In the solid form of dry ice, carbon dioxide is used for chilling perishable food during transport. It is also one of the only compounds that experiences sublimation, or the instantaneous transformation of a solid to a gas without passing through an intermediate liquid state, at conditions of ordinary pressure and temperature. Dry ice has often been used in movies to generate “mists” or “smoke” in a particular scene.

Carbon Monoxide

During the late eighteenth century, Priestley discovered a carbon-oxygen compound different from carbon dioxide: carbon monoxide. Scientists had actually known of this toxic gas, released in the incomplete combustion of wood, from the Middle Ages onward, but Priestley was the first to identify it scientifically.
Industry uses carbon monoxide in a number of ways. By blowing air across very hot coke, the result is producer gas, which, along with water gas (made by passing hot steam over coal) is an important fuel. Producer gas constitutes a 6:1:18 mixture of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen, while water gas is 40% carbon monoxide, 50% hydrogen, and 10% carbon dioxide and other gases.

Key terms

Allotropes: Different versions of the same element, distinguished by molecular structure.
Amorphous: Having no definite structure.
Carbohydrates: Naturally occurring compounds of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. These are primarily produced by green plants through the process of photosynthesis.
Cellular respiration: The process whereby nutrients from plants are broken down in an animal’s body to create carbon dioxide.
Covalent bonding: A type of chemical bonding in which two atoms share valence electrons.
Crystalline: A term describing a type of solid in which the constituent parts have a simple and definite geometric arrangement that is repeated in all directions.
Double bond: A form of bonding in which two atoms share two pairs of valence electrons. Carbon is also capable of single bonds and triple bonds.
Electronegativity: The relative ability of an atom to attract valence electrons.
Ion: An atom or group of atoms that has lost or gained one or more electrons, and thus has a net electric charge.
Ionic bonding: A form of chemical bonding that results from attractions between ions with opposite electric charges.
Isomers: Substances which have the same chemical formula, but which are different chemically due to differences in the arrangement of atoms.
Isotopes: Atoms that have an equal number of protons, and hence are of the same element, but differ in their number of neutrons. This results in a difference of mass. Isotopes may be either stable or unstable. The latter type, known as radioisotopes, are radioactive.
Octet rule: A term describing the distribution of valence electrons that takes place in chemical bonding for most elements, which usually end up with eight valence electrons.
Organic chemistry: The study of carbon, its compounds, and their properties. (Many carbon-containing oxides and carbonates are not considered organic, however.)
Photosynthesis: The biological conversion of light energy (that is, electromagnetic energy) to chemical energy in plants.
Radioactivity: A term describing a phenomenon whereby certain isotopes known as radioisotopes are subject to a form of decay brought about by the emission of high-energy particles. “Decay” does not mean that the isotope “rots”; rather, it decays to form another isotope until eventually (though this may take a long time) it becomes stable.
Single bond: A form of bonding in which two atoms share one pair of valence electrons. Carbon is also capable of double bonds and triple bonds.
Tetravalent: Capable of bonding to four other elements.
Triple bond: A form of bonding in which two atoms share three pairs of valence electrons. Carbon is also capable of single bonds and double bonds.
Valence electrons: Electrons that occupy the highest principal energy level in an atom. These are the electrons involved in chemical bonding.
Not only are producer and water gas used for fuel, they are also applied as reducing agents. Thus, when carbon monoxide is passed over hot iron oxides, the oxides are reduced to metallic iron, while the carbon monoxide is oxidized to form carbon dioxide. Carbon monoxide is also used in reactions with metals such as nickel, iron, and cobalt to form some types of carbonyls.
Carbon monoxide—produced by burning petroleum in automobiles, as well as by the combustion of wood, coal, and other carbon-containing fuels—is extremely hazardous to human health. It bonds with iron in hemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that transports oxygen throughout the body, and in effect fools the body into thinking that it is receiving oxygenated hemoglobin, or oxyhemoglobin. Upon reaching the cells, carbon monoxide has much less tendency than oxygen to break down, and therefore it continues to circulate throughout the body. Low concentrations can cause nausea, vomiting, and other effects, while prolonged exposure to high concentrations can result in death.

Carbon and the Environment

Carbon is released into the atmosphere by one of three means: cellular respiration; the burning of fossil fuels; and the eruption of volcanoes. When plants take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they combine this with water and manufacture organic compounds using energy they have trapped from sunlight by means of photo-synthesis—the conversion of light to chemical energy through biological means. As a by-product of photosynthesis, plants release oxygen into the atmosphere.
In the process of undergoing photosynthesis, plants produce carbohydrates, which are various compounds of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen essential to life. The other two fundamental components of a diet are fats and proteins, both
carbon-based as well. Animals eat the plants, or eat other animals that eat the plants, and thus incorporate the fats, proteins, and sugars (a form of carbohydrate) from the plants into their bodies. Cellular respiration is the process whereby these nutrients are broken down to create carbon dioxide.
Photosynthesis and cellular respiration are thus linked in what is known as the carbon cycle. Cellular respiration also releases carbon into the atmosphere through the action of decomposers—bacteria and fungi that feed on the remains of plants and animals. The decomposers extract the energy in the chemical bonds of the decomposing matter, thus releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
When creatures die and are buried in such a way that they cannot be reached by decomposers—for instance, at the bottom of the ocean, or beneath layers of rock—the carbon in their bodies is eventually converted to fossil fuels, including petroleum, natural gas, and coal. The burning of fossil fuels releases carbon (both monoxide and dioxide) into the atmosphere.
Because the rate of such burning has increased dramatically since the late nineteenth century, this has raised fears that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may create a greenhouse effect, leading to global warming. On the other hand, volcanoes release tons of carbon into the atmosphere regardless of whether humans burn fossil fuels or not.

Radiocarbon Dating

Radiocarbon dating is used to date the age of charcoal, wood, and other biological materials. When an organism is alive, it incorporates a certain ratio of carbon-12 in proportion to the amount of the radioisotope (that is, radioactive isotope) carbon-14 that it receives from the atmosphere. As soon as the organism dies, however, it stops incorporating new carbon, and the ratio between carbon-12 and carbon-14 will begin to change as the carbon-14 decays to form nitrogen-14.
Carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,730 years, meaning that it takes that long for half the isotopes in a sample to decay to nitrogen-14. Therefore a scientist can use the ratios of carbon-12, carbon-14, and nitrogen-14 to guess the age of an organic sample. The problem with radiocarbon dating, however, is that there is a good likelihood the sample can become contaminated by additional carbon from the soil. Furthermore, it cannot be said with certainty that the ratio of car-bon-12 to carbon-14 in the atmosphere has been constant throughout time.

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