You’ve probably heard of the word carbon as global warming becomes a popular topic of discussion in today’s society. In this context, it’s often used as shorthand for carbon dioxide, which is the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities. But technically, this isn’t accurate since carbon only becomes CO2 when each atom of carbon combines with two atoms of oxygen. The word carbon is also found in the phrase carbon footprint to mean the total amount of greenhouse gases released. This shorthand use of the word carbon can be confusing, which is why I’ve decided to cover the true characteristics and properties of the element carbon.
So, how many protons does carbon have? For any element in the periodic table, the atomic number equals the number of protons per atom of an element and also equals the number of electrons per neutral atom. Since carbon has an atomic number of 6, it means that it also has 6 protons.
The actual definition of carbon is that it’s a chemical element found in the periodic table. It is one of the most abundant elements in the universe. It circulates through the land, atmosphere, and even the ocean, thereby creating what is known as the Carbon Cycle. Carbon is a unique element due to its four valence electrons that allow it to bond with many other elements including itself. All living things contain carbon in some form, which only makes sense that we learn as much as possible about this element. Stay with me as I take you through what is essential and basic about this special element.
How Many Protons Does Carbon Have?
The best way to understand carbon from a chemical perspective is to start from the very beginning. So, what is carbon? As I had mentioned earlier, it’s a chemical element in the periodic table with the symbol C. Carbon exists in pure or nearly pure forms like graphite and diamond, but it is also tetravalent and makes four electrons available for forming covalent chemical bonds. This non-metal element is quite easy to spot in everyday life. For starters, the pencil you use to write is carbon in its graphite form while your jewellery might contain carbon in diamond form. Did you know that about 18% of your body is of carbon? Well, carbon atoms constitute the backbone of a number of important molecules in the human body, including DNA, RNA, proteins, sugars, and fats. Now that you understand what carbon is, let’s take a look at its structure.
The Atomic Structure of Carbon
Each element in the periodic table has an atomic number, which describes the number of protons in the nucleus of every atom of that element. This number defines the identity of an element. For example, the atomic number of carbon is 6 and so it the number of protons. As such, any element with 6 protons is identified as a carbon atom regardless of how many neutrons it may have. The atomic number also equals the number of electrons per neutral atom.
There are several isotopes of carbon but the three naturally occurring ones are as follows. Carbon-12 makes up 98.89% of all carbon occurring in nature but there are also small amounts of carbon-13 and trace amounts of carbon-14. All these carbon isotopes have 6 protons and 6 electrons but the difference is in the number of neutrons. Carbon-12 has 6 neutrons while carbon-13 and carbon-14 have 7 and 8 neutrons respectively. While all carbon atoms need to have the same atomic/proton number, they don’t need to have the same mass number, which is the number of protons + number of neutrons. This is what brings about different isotopes of carbon.
Having atomic number 6, the first two electrons of each carbon atom fills the inner shell while the remaining four are valence electrons. To achieve stability, carbon atoms must find four more electrons to fill their outer shell to get a total of eight and satisfy the octet rule.
This means that each carbon atom can form four covalent bonds with other atoms that have electrons to share. Carbon is considered a unique element due to its ability to bond to other carbon atoms to an unlimited degree, which in turn allows for the formation of more covalent bonds and the connection goes on-and-on. This makes for several possible bond combinations, thereby making a huge number of different possible molecules.
This is evidenced by the fact that there are currently over 10 million carbon-based compounds and they are currently being studied under an entire branch of chemistry called organic chemistry. Some of the most common carbon compounds include acetylene (C2H2), acetic acid (CH3COOH), benzene (C6H6), carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon tetrachloride (CCl4), chloroform (CHCl3), ethyl alcohol (C2H5OH), ethylene (C2H4), and methane (CH4). Many more probably exist in nature while organic chemists continue to synthetically create new ones.
Allotropes of Carbon
If an element exists in more than one crystalline form, those forms are called allotropes. Carbon atoms can be arranged in several different patterns, meaning this element exists in different forms with each form having its own properties. The most common allotropes of carbon are:
- Diamond: Of all the naturally occurring forms of carbon, diamond holds the pride. It’s the hardest naturally occurring substance known to mankind and has long been treasured for its perfection, beauty, and rarity. Scientists are even finding new reasons to value it over other gemstones. Diamonds are very attractive but expensive, hence used in high-end jewellery. Thanks to its extremely hard nature, diamond is perfect for drills, which allows it to be cut into ideal shapes for jewellery.
- Graphite: Unlike diamond, this form of carbon is one of the softest substances known. Graphite is primarily used as a lubricant but also acts as a good conductor of electricity and a thermal insulator. Another common use of graphite is in lead pencils. Though it occurs naturally, this substance can be produced commercially by treating petroleum coke.
Allotropes of carbon are not limited to these two, but also include amorphous carbon, Graphene, buckyballs (fullerenes), carbon nanofoam, glassy carbon, and others.
Carbon Is the Element of Life
Everything on earth is made up of combinations of different elements found in the periodic table with the main one being carbon.
Did you know that the human body is about 20% carbon? In fact, it is the primary component of the four major classes of biological macromolecules, including carbohydrates, nucleic acids, proteins and lipids. Each of these macromolecules is an important component of the cell and performs a variety of functions. Needless to say, the human body cannot function without carbon.
When it comes to plants, carbon exists in many forms like in the cellulose and chlorophyll to help form the leaf’s structure.
For an element to be considered the basic building block of life, it has to fit a certain criteria. For starters, it has to be reasonably abundant, be able to undergo lots of chemical reactions, not too reactive, must be able to harness energy from the sun or combinations of other chemicals, and be able to store that energy in a convenient chemical form, among other things. In short, it has to multitask.
Carbon carries all these characteristics, making it the most adaptable, useful, and versatile element of all. It plays countless chemical roles that touch every part of our life.
Does Carbon Have Any Harmful Effects?
Pure carbon has very low toxicity to humans, but keep in mind that inhaling large quantities of carbon black can irritate or even damage your lungs. While carbon on its own is safe for humans, we cannot ignore its role in climate change. This element is abundant in the atmosphere and combines with oxygen (O2) to form carbon dioxide (CO2), which is the primary greenhouse gas.
Excessive carbon dioxide creates a cover that traps the sun’s heat energy in the atmospheric bubble, which in turn causes global warming, extreme climate change, shifting wildlife populations, and a range of other negative impacts we are experiencing today. They also contribute to respiratory illness from air pollution. Since each CO2 molecule can stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, today’s carbon overload can have long-term consequences.
Some of the technologies for lowering carbon emissions include boosting energy efficiency, swapping fossil fuels for renewable sources, and stopping deforestation. But this is not enough to curb the effects of the pre-existing carbon dioxide. We also need to remove some CO2 from the atmosphere. The best way to do this is to create more forests. As plants and trees grow, they take in carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and turn it into sugars through photosynthesis.
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.