What Are the Characteristics of Carbon?


The element carbon is atomic number six on the periodic table of elements. Life on Earth could not exist without it. Carbon combines with hydrogen to form organic compounds called hydrocarbons, building blocks for living cells and essential compounds for natural resources such as petroleum and natural gas.


  • Carbon has an atomic mass of 12.01. Each atom has six electrons, six protons and six neutrons. Carbon has a melting point of 3652 C and a boiling point of 4827 C. Plain carbon is a soft substance that is black or gray. It is dense enough to sink if immersed in water.


  • Three forms of carbon exist in nature. One form is graphite, and according to Compton's Encyclopedia, "The layers are held together by long-range, relatively weak attractive forces called Van der Waals forces. The layers can slide over each other easily, which accounts in part for the lubricating property of graphite." Another form of carbon is diamond, the hardest substance found in nature. The third from of pure carbon is a rare structure in nature called a fullerene, a cluster of carbon atoms resembling a geodesic dome. Fullerenes can be artificially synthesized in large quantities.


  • Ordinary carbon contains six neutrons in its nucleus and is also known as carbon-12. Other isotopes of carbon have different numbers of neutrons in the nucleus, and may have different properties than ordinary carbon. Scientists have discovered seven isotopes of carbon, including carbon-12. Radioactive carbon-13 has seven neutrons, and is used by scientists as a tracer for chemical reactions and in magnetic resonance studies of organic molecules. Radioactive carbon-14 has eight neutrons, and is a valuable tool for dating archaeological objects between 500 and 50,000 years old.

Molecules and Compounds

  • One of the properties that allows carbon to form so many different types of molecules and compounds is that carbon atoms can bind to each other, potentially forming long chains of carbon atoms. When carbon atoms chain together, the connections can be single bonds, double bonds or triple bonds. One important compound that includes carbon is carbon dioxide (CO2), an essential gas for plant survival. Ethanol is a well-known hydrocarbon that forms the active ingredient in alcoholic beverages.

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