If you think you haven’t encountered much carbon in your life, think again. Not only is it one of the most abundant elements on the periodic table, it’s also the main building block in the human body—and the body of every other living animal.
Discovered Long Ago
Belonging to group 14 on the periodic table, Carbon exists as a solid at room temperature. Unlike many elements, Carbon was discovered in ancient times, though it was not officially proposed as an element until the 18th century.
In 1789, A.L Lavoisier proposed to name it Carbon because of the Latin word “carbo” which means charcoal. Similar names have been adopted in other European languages. This proposition makes sense considering one of Carbon’s most common forms is as graphite (from the Latin “grafo” meaning to write), a common material for writing utensils.
The other common form of Carbon is diamonds. Despite common misconceptions, most diamonds don’t form from coal. In fact, the only requirements for diamond formation are that carbon is superheated under very high pressure.
A Friend To Every Element
Carbon is sometimes referred to as the “King of Elements” because of the virtually limitless compounds in which it can participate. Most commonly, Carbon will bond with hydrogen or oxygen.
You are likely familiar with some of the most common of these combinations, like carbon dioxide. When Carbon combined with both hydrogen and oxygen, carbon forms some of the most common natural compounds like sugars, alcohol and fats.
Carbon itself is formed in giant stars when three alpha particles collide. When stars die and explode, Carbon is then scattered as space dust. It then allows for the formation of new stars, and thus new solar systems (like this one), wherein Carbon plays an important role in facilitating new life.
Present Everywhere You Look
Due to its formation in celestial bodies, Carbon is the fourth most common element in the universe, ranking just behind hydrogen, helium, and oxygen by mass. This is one of the reasons that microscopic diamonds may form at the site of a meteor impact—the carbon of the meteor reacts with the carbon in the Earth’s crust with such pressure and heat, that very small diamonds are quickly formed.
Carbon is present in the cells of every living animal and plant. Indeed, it is present in all organic compounds in some measure. This means that you not only exhale a carbon compound every time you breathe, but you also ingest one every time you eat.
Not Rare, but Not Cheap
It is, perhaps, counterintuitive that an allotrope of one of the universe’s most abundant elements is one of the most sought after items on Earth, but that’s exactly the case with diamonds. Graphite, carbon-fiber cloth, and other such byproduct materials are worth very little, but the opposite is true of diamonds.
Despite Carbon’s commonness, and the fact that diamonds can be grown in labs, mined diamonds that have occurred naturally remain a huge commodity in most of the world’s cultures. In fact, labor is exploited regularly for the sake of mining diamonds in dangerous conditions.
From pop culture references like Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” to using them as a symbol of commitment in engagements, diamonds are so widely sought that they have practically become synonymous with class and care.
Carbon may rest on the periodic table, but you don’t have to be a scientist to see its presence in everyday life.