Carbon is a naturally abundant nonmetallic element which forms the basis of most living organisms. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe, and it plays a crucial role in the health and stability of the planet through the carbon cycle. This cycle is extremely complex, and it illustrates the interconnection between organisms on Earth. Most consumers are familiar with the element, along with numerous forms in which it appears.
The atomic number of this element is six, and it is identified by the symbol “C” on the periodic table. The structure of carbon molecules is such that the molecules bond readily with a wide range of other elements, forming thousands of compounds. The molecules also bond with each other in different ways, creating forms of carbon such as diamonds, the hardest substance on Earth, and graphite, one of the softest materials on the planet. Its changing personality, depending on what it bonds with and how, makes it a very unique element.
All living organisms contain carbon, and as they decay or change, they will continue to contain the element. Coal, limestone, and petroleum, for example, are all fossilized forms of living organisms containing abundant amounts of carbon. Plants and animal life which died millions of years ago were slowly compressed into these substances, and their integral carbon was preserved. These remains are used in everything from jet fuel to children's dolls.
Carbon itself, along with many of its forms, is relatively nonreactive. When it combines with some other elements such as hydrogen, it becomes more reactive, and this reactiveness is used to the advantage of industry. In the case of hydrocarbons, the compound is used as a source of energy. The immense versatility of this element makes it highly useful in a number of industries. Carbon is burned to create fuel, used to filter various substances, and combined with iron to make steel. It also is used as the basis of drawing pencils and charcoals, to make synthetics like plastic, and, in the form of an isotope, as a dating tool for archaeologists.
On its own, carbon is not very dangerous, since it is nontoxic and nonreactive. However, some forms can be harmful to some organisms, such as carbon monoxide. The element may also appear in conjunction with more dangerous elements, or it may generate harmful dust in the case of coal and diamonds. Individual precautions for different forms of carbon vary widely, and it is a good idea to consult a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) if you are concerned about a particular substance.