Carbon element | Properties, Abundance, Uses and History

Characteristics of carbon

Carbon is the element of symbol C in the periodic table, and of atomic number 6. This means that its nucleus is formed by 6 protons (and some neutrons), with 6 electrons around it. Carbon is not a metal. In addition, carbon is an element known for being highly reactive, for which it is present in more than a million compounds (much more than any other material).

Carbon is a solid element under standard conditions, and it remains to be solid at high temperatures. Its melting point is 3 550ºC, and its boiling point of 3 800ºC. Even if carbon effects on health aren’t very important, some of its compounds have an elevated toxicity level or can cause damage to the lungs.

Moreover, as it is well-known since some years ago, carbon oxides (CO2 or CO) are characterised by being the major contributors to climate change, which makes the temperature of the planet greatly increase. Two decades ago, the content of CO2 (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere was about 280 ppm (parts per million). Nowadays, however, this number is more than 400 ppm.


Carbon is the fourth most common element in the universe. In addition, it has great biological importance, being present in all living organisms. It forms about 18.5% of our body, and it is the second most abundant element of the latter.

Carbon exists under different forms, named allotropes. The most common allotropes of carbon include diamond, graphite or amorphous carbon (as charcoal or coal). Some nano-forms of carbon are graphene and fullerenes.

Finally, carbon is an element that is also present in diverse hydrocarbons and fossil energies such as petroleum, coal or natural gas.

Uses of carbon

  • Carbon fibres are commonly used in manufacturing, for example, fishing rods, tennis rackets, and planes, as they are extremely strong and light.
  • Carbon has also revolutionised nanotechnology with the discovery of carbon nanotubes, widely used in the electronic industry.
  • Carbon pills are also used to absorb toxins from the digestive system and as a solution to flatulence.
  • Diamond is used in drills and other machines to cut stones and other hard materials, due to its immense strength and durability.
  • The named activated carbon is used in filtration and water-purifying systems.
  • The radioactive isotope carbon-14, discovered in 1940, is used in radiometric dating.

Its discovery

The discovery of carbon dates from prehistoric times. It was used by ancient human civilizations in the form of coal. Diamond was discovered in China in 2 500 before J.C.

despite all this, carbon was discovered as a novel element in 1722 by Antoine Ferchault, who proposed that this new element could be used to transform iron into steel (as it is in fact done nowadays). In 1786, A. Vandermonde, together with two other companions confirmed that graphite was a form of carbon, just as diamond.

The name of carbon comes from the Latin word “carbo”, which means carbon.

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