Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the universe by mass, and the fifteenth most abundant element in the earth’s crust. Carbon is also the basis of organic life as all organic compounds contain ’c’ in their chain. Carbon is found in the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, and it is found in the ground in fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal.
There are three main allotropes of carbon. An allotrope refers to the formation of the atoms in an element. Carbon has a crystalline allotrope which is known as diamond. Although people value the gem-like brilliance of diamond, this allotrope is more commonly used in industry for cutting and grinding then it is in jewellry.
Graphite is another allotrope of carbon. This is a cube shape where the layers can slide off; thus, making graphite useful as a lubricant and also as a material for writing (pencil ’leads’ are made of graphite). Although carbon is not classified as metal it is conductive in its graphite form. This makes graphite very useful for industry. It is used to make carbon brushes for the autmobile industry. It is also used in the process of electrical discharge machining where a high electrical voltage is sent down a graphite electrode to another electrode. The connection is made via a spark that erodes or cuts. EDM can cut the hardest metals and alloys.
The most recent form of allotrope to emerge as useful to industry is Buckminsterfullerenes. These take the shape of a hollw sphere ellipsoid or tube. They have given rise to nanotechnology as these allotropes of carbon can be used to build at an atomic level functional systems. It as the discovery of the Buckminsterfullerenes 20 years ago that put the ’nano’ in nanotechnology. This is one of the most exciting developments in design and engineering as we can start the process of manipulation at the very basis of matter.
Carbon is fundamental to our life. It is fundamental to our economy, our industries, and carbon manipulation is at the very vanguard of engineering.