The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.


carbon [Lat.,=charcoal], nonmetallic chemical element; symbol C; at. no. 6; interval in which at. wt. ranges 12.0096–12.0116; m.p. about 3,550°C; graphite sublimes about 3,375°C; b.p. 4,827°C; sp. gr. 1.8–2.1 (amorphous), 1.9–2.3 (graphite), 3.15–3.53 (diamond); valence +2, +3, +4, or -4.

Properties and Isotopes

Carbon is found free in nature in at least four distinct forms (see allotropy). One form, graphite, is a very soft, dark gray or black, lustrous material with either a hexagonal or rhombohedral crystalline structure. Diamond, a second crystalline form, is the hardest substance known. In a third form, the so-called amorphous carbon, the element occurs partly free and partly combined with other elements; charcoal, coal, coke, lampblack, peat, and lignite are some sources of amorphous carbon. A fourth form contains the fullerenes, stable molecules consisting of carbon atoms that arrange themselves into 12 pentagonal faces and any number greater than 1 of hexagonal faces. The most prominent of the fullerenes is buckminsterfullerene, a spheroidal molecule, resembling a soccer ball, consisting of 60 carbon atoms. A fifth form, "white" carbon, is believed to exist. Carbon has the capacity to act chemically both as a metal and as a nonmetal. It is a constituent of all organic matter.

Carbon has 13 known isotopes, which have from 2 to 14 neutrons in the nucleus and mass numbers from 8 to 20. Carbon-12 was chosen by IUPAC in 1961 as the basis for atomic weights; it is assigned an atomic mass of exactly 12 atomic mass units. Carbon-13 absorbs radio waves and is used in nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometry to study organic compounds. Carbon-14, which has a half-life of 5,730 years, is a naturally occurring isotope that can also be produced in a nuclear reactor. It is used extensively as a research tool in tracer studies; a compound synthesized with carbon-14 is said to be "tagged" and can be traced through a chemical or biochemical reaction. Carbon-14 has been used in the study of such problems as utilization of foods in animal nutrition, catalytic petroleum processes, photosynthesis, and the mechanism of aging in steel. It is also used for determining the age of archaeological specimens (see dating).


There are more carbon compounds than there are compounds of all other elements combined. The study of carbon compounds, both natural and synthetic, is called organic chemistry. Plastics, foods, textiles, and many other common substances contain carbon. Hydrocarbon fuels (e.g., natural gas), marsh gas, and the gases resulting from the combustion of fuels (e.g., carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide) are compounds of carbon. With oxygen and a metallic element, carbon forms many important carbonates, such as calcium carbonate (limestone) and sodium carbonate (soda). Certain active metals react with it to make industrially important carbides, such as silicon carbide (an abrasive known as carborundum), calcium carbide, used for producing acetylene gas, and tungsten carbide, an extremely hard substance used for rock drills and metalworking tools.

Natural Occurrence and Uses

Carbon has been known to humans in its various forms since ancient times. Although carbon makes up only .032% of the earth's crust, it is very widely distributed and forms a vast number of compounds. Carbon exists in the stars; a series of thermonuclear reactions called the carbon cycle (see nucleosynthesis) is a source of energy for some stars. Carbon in the form of diamonds has been found in meteorites. Coke is used as a fuel in the production of iron. Carbon electrodes are widely used in electrical apparatus. The "lead" of the ordinary pencil is graphite mixed with clay. The successful linking in the 1940s of carbon with silicon has led to the development of a vast number of new substances known collectively as the silicones.

Biological Importance

All living organisms contain carbon; the human body is about 18% carbon by weight. In green plants carbon dioxide and water are combined to form simple sugars (carbohydrates); light from the sun provides the energy for this process (photosynthesis). The energy from the sun is stored in the chemical bonds of the sugar molecule. Anabolism, the synthesis of complex compounds (such as fats, proteins, and nucleic acids) from simpler substances, involves the utilization of energy stored by photosynthesis. Catabolism is the release of stored energy by the oxidative destruction of organic compounds; water and carbon dioxide are two byproducts of catabolism. This continuing synthesis and degradation involving carbon dioxide is known as the biological carbon cycle.


See P. L. Walker, Jr., and P. A. Thrower, ed., Chemistry and Physics of Carbon (11 vol., 1966–74); H. O. Pierson, Handbook of Carbon, Graphite, Diamond, and Fullerenes: Properties, Processing, and Applications (1993).

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article



Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.