August 5, 2012

Carbon, compounds have many properties

Let’s talk about element No. 6 in the Periodic Table: carbon.

Yes, really, it is very interesting.

Remember that phrase “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”? Yes, that diamond in the engagement ring is all carbon (hope this does not disappoint anyone). Diamonds have a three-dimensional arrangement of carbon atoms that provides the special properties of hardness and beauty.

How about that new walking stick or ski pole? Indeed, it may be made of carbon, carbon in a fiber form. It is stronger by weight than steel and very light. These properties are finding increased uses everywhere.

What about the pencils many of us use every day? The “lead” is actually another form of carbon called graphite. Graphite exists as flat sheets of carbon atoms that slide over one another and is very useful as a lubricant.

Carbon is the major component of coal, oil, biomass and natural gas and when burned provides us with heat, the electricity that helps run our homes and the energy we need to power our complex civilization.

The product of this combustion is carbon dioxide, which is still another form of carbon. It is a colorless, tasteless, odorless gas that has some valuable properties. One of them is that it is used as “dry ice” to keep ice cream frozen. Upon melting, it goes directly from the solid frozen state at minus 109 F to a gas, and leaves no liquid behind; it sublimes. It is also inert and is used in fire extinguishers.

If we could see this gas molecule, it might look something like the illustration here. The carbon atom is at the center with an oxygen atom attached to it on each side in a linear fashion, as shown.

This form of carbon is also a food, in the sense that all green plants consume it. Together with the sun’s energy in a process called photosynthesis, plants use it for growth of flowers, leaves, wood, grains and other foods that sustains life.

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