Carbon is the 15th most abundant element on Earth and the fourth most abundant in the universe (after hydrogen, helium and oxygen). It comes in many forms from an amorphous powdery form found in charcoal, to the soft graphite in pencils, to diamond; the hardest naturally occurring substance we know of. Its ability to bond with other elements led to the formation of amino acids, proteins, carbohydrates and the evolution of life on Earth. The fact that carbon is the ‘glue’ that holds molecules together is why we say that all life as we know it is carbon-based.
Carbon is also a paradoxical element; depending which form it is in, its properties can be completely reversed. Graphite is one of the softest solids, is very electrically conductive, is a superb lubricator, an effective thermal insulator and is opaque. Diamond, in contrast, is the hardest of solids, does not conduct electricity, is the ultimate abrasive, is the best known thermal conductor and is completely transparent.
Carbon is used in many different technologies: methane gas, coal, petrol and oil are all hydrocarbon-based fuels; super-strong carbon fibre is used to strengthen lightweight structures like aircraft frames; charcoal is used as fuel and as an art material; diamonds are used to cut, grind and smooth hard materials and to focus some kinds of laser; you’ll find it in dry battery electrodes and in the brushes inside electric motors; activated charcoal is used in filters in fish tanks, cooker hoods, gas masks and in water purifiers; it’s the black pigment in inks, paints and toners; and, of course, it is the basic element from which plastics are produced.
Diamonds are created when carbon is squeezed under enormous pressures, during which it forms into a strong tetrahedral lattice. They are not particularly rare although gem quality ones are. Only one in a million diamonds are one carat stones and only one in five million are two carat. A three carat stone turns up rarely; only around one in 15 million. The largest natural diamond ever found – at a whopping 3106.75 carats (621.35g or 1.36lbs) – was the Cullinan Diamond, found in South Africa in 1905. It was cut into 105 diamonds including the Great Star of Africa (Cullinan I - 530.2 carats), and the the Lesser Star of Africa (Cullinan II - 317.4 carats), both of which are now part of the Crown Jewels.
Also among the Crown Jewels is the famous Koh-i-Noor (Mountain of Light). The diamond was presented to Queen Victoria in 1850 and is now set in the platinum crown made for the late Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, for the 1937 coronation. The first reliable mention of it is in the writings of Babur, the founder of the Mogul Empire, who names it as part of the treasure won by Ala-ud-deen (Aladdin) at the conquest of Malwah in 1304CE. The Koh-i-noor remained with the Mogul emperors until 1739, when Nadir Shah of Persia, the conqueror of India, got hold of it. Through various subsequent upheavals and rebellions the diamond came into the possession of the Indian princes, until the annexation of the Punjab during Victoria’s reign secured it for the British. Dissatisfied with its shape, Prince Albert, had the diamond re-cut in 1852 to increase its brilliance. This involved reducing the weight of the stone by 42% and from 186.0625 carats to 105.602 carats. When the diamond went on show at the Great Exhibition of 1851, thousands queued to see it. Traditionally the Koh-i-Noor is only worn by a queen or queen consort as it is said to bring bad luck to any man who wears it. A 14th century Hindu text states quite clearly that: ‘He who owns this diamond will own the world, but will also know all its misfortunes. Only God, or a woman, can wear it with impunity.’ In this instance, a diamond really is a girl’s best friend.
Graphene is a recently created form of carbon that promises to be a wonder material for use in new technologies. It consists of a hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms just one atom thick. It was posited as a theoretical substance some 60 years ago and physicists thought it couldn't actually exist until, in 2004, Sir Andre Geim isolated it at Manchester University. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for the discovery.
Graphene is described as a ‘semi-metal’ and is the strongest tensile substance known to man. If you could get a piece of the material large enough to lay over the top of a coffee cup and tried to puncture it with a pencil, it would be strong enough to support a car balanced atop the pencil. It is also incredibly light and just 1g of graphene could cover several football pitches. It's the stiffest material we know but it's also the most stretchable crystal. What’s more, it’s self-repairing; when exposed to a bunch of loose carbon atoms a sheet of graphene can ‘sew up’ any holes rather like a moth-eaten blanket being able to repair itself if submerged in cotton.
Graphene is also the best conductor yet discovered of heat (at room temperature) and its electrical conductivity is 1,000 times better than silicon. This could lead to computer circuits that run 100 times faster. Another possible use is in desalination plants where graphene membranes containing tiny pores could allow water molecules to pass through but block salt ions. It could also be utilised as an anti-bacterial agent; graphene is extremely toxic to bacteria and appears to wrap around organisms such as E. coli disrupting the membranes of their cells.
No gold-digging for me. I take diamonds. We may be off the gold standard someday.
In 2004, astronomer Travis Metcalfe and colleagues at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics discovered a huge ‘diamond’ some 50 light years away in the constellation Centaurus. It is the remains of a ‘dead’ star that has collapsed in upon itself and consists of a sphere of crystallised carbon 4000kms across and weighing in at a staggering 10 billion trillion trillion – that’s a one followed by 34 zeroes – carats. The astronomers have named it Lucy after the Beatles song, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
Harvard physicist Peter Lu and colleagues have discovered that the ancient Chinese used diamonds to polish ceremonial burial axes in the late stone age.
The axes were made from corundum, the second hardest naturally occurring substance on Earth, and could only have been smoothed using diamond abrasives.
Organic chemistry is the chemistry of carbon compounds. Biochemistry is the study of carbon compounds that crawl.
Graphene aerogel was discovered by Manchester University scientists playing with sticky tape and graphite.
There are companies will turn the cremated remains of the deceased into a diamond.
A British company is selling underwear with an 'activated carbon back panel that absorbs all flatulence odours'.
Experiments at the University of California, Berkeley, indicate that the high temperatures and pressures found in the atmospheres of Neptune and Uranus could result in methane being turned into tiny diamonds that would fall like rain.
A family tumble-drier produces approximately one tonne of carbon emissions every year.
The world's peatlands hold twice as much carbon as the trees in all the world's forests.
It takes between four and eight hours to saw through a one carat diamond.
Louis XIV wore a coat with 123 diamond buttons on it.