Wikijunior:The Elements/Carbon

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Shows the position of Carbon on the periodic chart.
Carbon's symbol on the Periodic Table

What does it look, feel, taste, or smell like?

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Diamonds and graphite (the stuff that pencil leads are made of) are both made of carbon.

Did You Know?

  • Carbon has the highest melting point of all of the elements at 3652 °C(6605 °F).
  • Most molecules known to science contain carbon.
  • Carbon is one of the four main elements in most or all living things (the others are hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.)
  • When carbon is heated to a very high temperature it sublimates (changes directly from a solid to a gas).

How carbon looks depends on the molecule shape carbon makes. Carbon has many allotropes (see Wikipedia article). The most famous type of carbon shape is diamond. Diamond is clear but very shiny. It is very valuable and the hardest substance from nature. It is number 10 on the Mohs scale of hardness. Low quality diamonds can be made from other forms of carbon. Diamond is also notable for being one of the few substances which conducts heat very well but does not conduct electricity.

Another well known type of carbon is graphite, which is used in pencils. Graphite is grey instead of clear, and very soft, registering about 1 on the Mohs scale of hardness.

How was it discovered and how did it get its name?

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Carbon was known prehistorically by ancient people who produced it in the form of charcoal. The name is based on the Latin name carbo, which means charcoal.

Where is it found?

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Carbon is found in many places. Diamonds, graphite, and oil all contain carbon and can all be found underground. Carbon is also present in all living things, in organic molecules such as fat and sugar. Carbon is also found in the atmosphere as part of carbon dioxide and other compounds. Organic chemistry is a branch of chemistry that is dedicated to studying carbon-containing compounds. Some scientists speculate that without carbon, life couldn't exist at all. Others suggest that life based on silicon is possible.

A racing car. The body of the car is made from steel, it burns petroleum, and it drives on asphalt. All of these substances contain carbon. The person driving the car has carbon as one of the three most important constituent elements of his (or her) body. The car also releases carbon dioxide (the air you breathe out) into the atmosphere as it burns petroleum.

What are its uses?

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Diamonds are often used as decorations and in jewelry. Because diamonds are so hard, they are sometimes used to make blades to cut things, but these blades are very expensive. Graphite is very soft. Because of this, it is often used in pencils. "Lead" pencils are actually carbon.

Carbon separates the oxygen from iron in iron ore in furnaces and allows the useful metal iron to be made. Much carbon is used in making iron. When carbon is heated with iron in a furnace, steel is made.

When carbon is combined with hydrogen it forms a molecule called a 'hydrocarbon'. Hydrocarbons are very important because they are used for energy and fuel. Petroleum, such as the gas in your car, is a hydrocarbon and it is used to power vehicles and to make lubricants, among other things.

Carbon is sometimes used in filtration as "activated carbon", and helps to clean some unwanted materials from water.

When carbon is laid out into a 2-D sheet, it becomes a type of carbon called graphene. Graphene might be used to make computers in the future.

Is it dangerous?

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Carbon is relatively safe by itself. However, inhaled soot or smoke, which contain carbon, are bad for your lungs. Carbon is part of carbon dioxide which is linked to global warming. Incomplete burning of hydrocarbons releases carbon monoxide, which is very dangerous because it keeps the hemoglobin in your blood from picking up oxygen and basically suffocates your cells, so try not to breathe in the exhausts from your car.


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