What's Up With Carbon?



Carbon is a really cool chemical element and is the sixth most common element in the universe! It is non-metallic and is essential to all life on earth. Nearly all living organisms molecules contain carbon.

You have probably seen carbon in its pure form as graphite, or diamonds, and in its lesser-than-pure form as lumps of coal which is the most common carbon. Humans have been aware of carbon since the very early times when cave people would make a fire. The black smoke would leave soot on the ceilings of the caves.  The black smoke is caused by the unburned specks of carbon.

Carbon atoms combine freely with other elements. The carbon in plants ends up combining with hydrogen, oxygen and other elements to form the food we eat.

One of its forms is as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - a gas that has no color, so you can’t see it, and no odor, so you can’t smell it either. A carbon dioxide molecule is made up of one carbon atom (symbol = C) and two oxygen atoms (symbol = O). The “di” before oxide indicates two oxygen atoms. Therefore, carbon dioxide is represented by the chemical symbol CO2.

The carbon cycle is a process where carbon dioxide travels from the atmosphere into living organisms and the Earth, then back into the atmosphere. Plants take carbon dioxide from the air along with water and photosynthesis from the sun and use it to make food. Animals then eat the food and carbon is stored in their bodies and released. Most of the carbon they consume is exhaled as carbon dioxide. The CO2 then is returned to the atmosphere where the plants use it again.

When dead plants, animals and animal waste break down or decompose, they also release carbon dioxide as well, known as methane.

The carbon cycle is the Earth’s ultimate form of recycling and is a delicate balance. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and traps heat in our atmosphere. Burning more fossil fuels has created more than 30% more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than 150 years ago – this is making the earth become warmer.  Helping to keep our environment clean by burning less fossil fuel will assure this cycle keeps going for our future generations.