Carbon (from Latin: carbo “coal”) is a chemical element with symbol C and atomic number 6. As a member of group 14 on the periodic table, it is nonmetallic and tetravalent — making four electrons available to form covalent chemical bonds. There are three naturally occurring isotopes, with 12C and 13C being stable, while 14C is radioactive, decaying with a half-life of about 5,730 years. Carbon is one of the few elements known since antiquity.
There are several allotropes of carbon of which the best known are graphite, diamond, and amorphous carbon. The physical properties of carbon vary widely with the allotropic form. For example, diamond is highly transparent, while graphite is opaque and black. Diamond is the hardest naturally-occurring material known, while graphite is soft enough to form a streak on paper (hence its name, from the Greek word “γράφω” which means “to write”). Diamond has a very low electrical conductivity, while graphite is a very good conductor. Under normal conditions, diamond, carbon nanotubes, and graphene have the highest thermal conductivities of all known materials.
All carbon allotropes are solids under normal conditions, with graphite being the most thermodynamically stable form. They are chemically resistant and require high temperature to react even with oxygen. The most common oxidation state of carbon in inorganic compounds is +4, while +2 is found in carbon monoxide and other transition metal carbonyl complexes. The largest sources of inorganic carbon are limestones, dolomites and carbon dioxide, but significant quantities occur in organic deposits of coal, peat, oil and methane clathrates. Carbon forms a vast number of compounds, more than any other element, with almost ten million compounds described to date, which in turn are a tiny fraction of such compounds that are theoretically possible under standard conditions.
Carbon is the 15th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, and the fourth most abundant element in the universe by mass after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen. It is present in all known life forms, and in the human body carbon is the second most abundant element by mass (about 18.5%) after oxygen. This abundance, together with the unique diversity of organic compounds and their unusual polymer-forming ability at the temperatures commonly encountered on Earth, make this element the chemical basis of all known life.
Atomic carbon is a very short-lived species and, therefore, carbon is stabilized in various multi-atomic structures with different molecular configurations called allotropes. The three relatively well-known allotropes of carbon are amorphous carbon, graphite, and diamond. Once considered exotic, fullerenes are nowadays commonly synthesized and used in research; they include buckyballs, carbon nanotubes, carbon nanobuds and nanofibers. Several other exotic allotropes have also been discovered, such as lonsdaleite, glassy carbon, carbon nanofoam and linear acetylenic carbon (carbyne).
The amorphous form is an assortment of carbon atoms in a non-crystalline, irregular, glassy state, which is essentially graphite but not held in a crystalline macrostructure. It is present as a powder, and is the main constituent of substances such as charcoal, lampblack (soot) and activated carbon. At normal pressures carbon takes the form of graphite, in which each atom is bonded trigonally to three others in a plane composed of fused hexagonal rings, just like those in aromatic hydrocarbons. The resulting network is 2-dimensional, and the resulting flat sheets are stacked and loosely bonded through weak van der Waals forces. This gives graphite its softness and its cleaving properties (the sheets slip easily past one another). Because of the delocalization of one of the outer electrons of each atom to form a π-cloud, graphite conducts electricity, but only in the plane of each covalently bonded sheet. This results in a lower bulk electrical conductivity for carbon than for most metals. The delocalization also accounts for the energetic stability of graphite over diamond at room temperature.
At very high pressures carbon forms the more compact allotrope diamond, having nearly twice the density of graphite. Here, each atom is bonded tetrahedrally to four others, thus making a 3-dimensional network of puckered six-membered rings of atoms. Diamond has the same cubic structure as silicon and germanium and because of the strength of the carbon-carbon bonds, it is the hardest naturally occurring substance in terms of resistance to scratching. Contrary to the popular belief that “diamonds are forever“, they are in fact thermodynamically unstable under normal conditions and transform into graphite. However, due to a high activation energy barrier, the transition into graphite is so extremely slow at room temperature as to be unnoticeable. Under some conditions, carbon crystallizes as lonsdaleite. This form has a hexagonal crystal lattice where all atoms are covalently bonded. Therefore, all properties of lonsdaleite are close to those of diamond.
Fullerenes have a graphite-like structure, but instead of purely hexagonal packing, they also contain pentagons (or even heptagons) of carbon atoms, which bend the sheet into spheres, ellipses or cylinders. The properties of fullerenes (split into buckyballs, buckytubes and nanobuds) have not yet been fully analyzed and represent an intense area of research in nanomaterials. The names “fullerene” and “buckyball” are given after Richard Buckminster Fuller, popularizer of geodesic domes, which resemble the structure of fullerenes. The buckyballs are fairly large molecules formed completely of carbon bonded trigonally, forming spheroids (the best-known and simplest is the soccerball-shaped C60 buckminsterfullerene). Carbon nanotubes are structurally similar to buckyballs, except that each atom is bonded trigonally in a curved sheet that forms a hollow cylinder. Nanobuds were first reported in 2007 and are hybrid bucky tube/buckyball materials (buckyballs are covalently bonded to the outer wall of a nanotube) that combine the properties of both in a single structure.
Of the other discovered allotropes, carbon nanofoam is a ferromagnetic allotrope discovered in 1997. It consists of a low-density cluster-assembly of carbon atoms strung together in a loose three-dimensional web, in which the atoms are bonded trigonally in six- and seven-membered rings. It is among the lightest known solids, with a density of about 2 kg/m3. Similarly, glassy carbon contains a high proportion of closed porosity, but contrary to normal graphite, the graphitic layers are not stacked like pages in a book, but have a more random arrangement. Linear acetylenic carbon has the chemical structure -(C:::C)n-. Carbon in this modification is linear with sp orbital hybridization, and is a polymer with alternating single and triple bonds. This type of carbyne is of considerable interest to nanotechnology as its Young’s modulus is forty times that of the hardest known material – diamond.