Carbon is one of the most important naturally occurring elements. It’s a key ingredient for most of life on the planet. Carbon is such an incredible element; arrange carbon atoms in one way, and they form the hardest substance known to humankind. Rearrange carbon atoms, and voilà, you have one of the softest materials on earth. As an element, carbon appeals to our curious nature as human beings. Questions like ‘how many electrons does carbon have?’ often come up. If you’ve been wondering the same thing, you are not alone. Read on to find answers to this and any other questions that you may have regarding carbon.
How many electrons does carbon have? Carbon has six electrons. From the periodic table, we can see that carbon has the atomic number six, meaning that the nucleus or the centre of a carbon atom contains six protons. Since number of electrons and protons in all neutral atoms is identical, a carbon atom has six electrons.
Carbon is everywhere. Take a look around you; you are surrounded by carbon atoms, from the synthetic fibre and the colourful dye in your clothes to the soles and leather on your shoes, the pages on the book you are reading, and the glue that binds them together. Carbon is also in the food we eat, sparkling wine, and that fizzy water you love to drink. The tiles on your ceiling, paint on your walls, and the carpet on your floor all contain carbon atoms. Carbon is an extraordinary element, and I’ll be telling you why that is throughout this article. Keep reading!
How Many Electrons Does Carbon Have?
Every element is made up of small particles known as atoms. An atom is the basic unit of matter in an element. Atoms retain the chemical properties of the element and are made up of even smaller particles, namely protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons contain a positive charge, while electrons a negative charge. Neutrons have no charge. Protons reside at the centre of an atom (the nucleus), while electrons can be found in the outermost regions of an atom. The placement as well as the quantity of subatomic particles — i.e. protons, neutrons, and electrons — determines the properties of an atom. The atomic number of elements is based on the number of protons and differentiates one element from another.
Neutral atoms of an element have the same number of protons and electrons. For instance, the atomic number of the element carbon is six because there are six protons at the centre of the carbon atom. The outer region of the carbon atom has six electrons orbiting around the nucleus. They can be found in the clouds that surround the centre of the carbon atom. Remember that electrons are the particles of an atom with a negative charge of -1 while the protons have a positive charge of +1. Electrons are responsible for creating the negative charge that balances the positive charge of the protons to make atoms electrically neutral. In terms of size, electrons are nearly 1,000 times smaller than protons.
The Role of Electrons in Carbon
There are copious amounts of carbon in the universe. Humans have known about the existence of the element since ancient times. Of all the richly diverse elements of the periodic table, carbon is unique in its impact on life on earth. All life on earth is carbon-based. Carbon plays a very important role in the chemistry of living organisms. It’s the bonding properties of carbon atoms that make the element a vital component of life. That’s because carbon easily combines with itself and a wide range of other elements to create a wide variety of compounds. The bond between carbon atoms with themselves or other elements forms the fundamental components of the vast majority of molecules found uniquely in all the different life forms on earth.
Electrons play a major role in all chemical bonds. A bond is a link between two neighbouring atoms in a molecule or compound. Valence electrons (electrons on the outermost energy shell of an atom) interact to form bonds. When two atoms form a connection by sharing electrons, this type of bond is referred to as covalent. Carbon has four valence electrons, which means it can attach to four other atoms or molecules via covalent bonds. For instance, Methane (CH4), which has four hydrogen atoms bound to a carbon atom, is the simplest organic carbon molecule. The four valence electrons of the carbon atom produce a vast range of compounds with numerous properties and contribute to the significance of carbon in living things.
What Are the Different Forms of Carbon?
Carbon is mostly extracted from coal deposits, but it has to be processed into a form that is more fitting for commercial applications. In its natural form, carbon is available in three forms namely amorphous, graphite, and diamond. Amorphous carbon is created when carbon-containing substances are burned with a limited amount of oxygen so that they don’t burn completely. Black soot is the most common type of amorphous carbon. The second naturally occurring form of carbon is graphite. Graphite can also be produced artificially for commercial purposes by burning petroleum coke in an oven without oxygen. Graphite is soft and slippery and is commonly used to make lubricants.
The third naturally occurring allotrope of carbon is diamond –the hardest substance known to man. Diamond is formed under tremendous pressure deep in the earth’s crust and is the most ostentatious version of carbon. Diamond can also be produced artificially. These tiny pieces of diamond are made by compressing graphite under very high temperature for a given length of time. Artificially made diamonds are typically used to make items such as oil rig drills and diamond-tipped glass cutters while naturally occurring diamond is mostly used for jewellery. Carbon is also found on the sun and other stars, planets, meteors, and other astronomical bodies in various forms.
Diamond Vs. Graphite: Electrons and Covalent Bonds
Elemental carbon exists in several forms, but diamond and graphite are the most prominent ones. Diamond and graphite are made entirely out of carbon. The latter is a very soft, slippery substance primarily used as a lubricant. It also conducts electricity reasonably well. On the other hand, the former is one of the hardest materials on earth and is transparent and colourless in its purest form. How can two substances composed of exactly the same kind of atoms have such different properties?
Structurally, the thing that sets them apart is their crystal alignment. The different properties of these two allotropes of carbon arise from how carbon atoms are arranged in space within these substances. In diamond, the four valence carbon electrons pair with electrons from other carbon atoms tetrahedrally to form a strong covalent bond. In graphite, only three out of the four valance electrons in a carbon atom bond with other carbon atoms, resulting in a 2D layer-like structure with spaces between the layers.
Is Carbon Contributing to Climate Change?
All living things are made of carbon. Your muscles, skin and hair, bones, etc., are all made of elemental carbon, and so are plants and other living organisms. Carbon is the giver of life, but at the same time, life on earth is under threat because of carbon. Is carbon contributing to climate change? Well, yes. What is the role of carbon in global warming? What does carbon footprint mean?
The valence electrons of a carbon atom form a covalent bond with two oxygen atoms to form carbon dioxide. In the context of global warming, ‘carbon’ is short for carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the foremost greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere by humankind. When CO2 and other greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, they trap heat that’s being reflected off the surface of the earth acting like a blanket. The result is global warming. The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has far-reaching consequences for life on the planet. The phrase carbon footprint refers to the total amount of heat-trapping emissions such as CO2 and Methane (CH4) generated by human activity. Carbon atoms combine with oxygen and hydrogen atoms to form CO2 and CH4, respectively. Technically, it’s not carbon that’s causing climate change, but rather both of these carbon compounds contribute to global warming.
About the author: Marta Kovachek is the author of this article. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a master’s degree in Economics. Marta enjoys writing about the current economic situation and loves helping our readers to find their next "destination". From places to live to complex social and economic topics, we always enjoy Marta's work. Please contact us in case of any questions.