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Chemical Elements

Carbon

carbon compounds, inorganic compounds, natural fibers, carbon atoms, organic materials

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Carbon, nonmetallic chemical element, known by the symbol C, that is the fundamental building block of material in living organisms and is important to many industries. Carbon occurs in nature in nearly pure form in diamond and graphite. It is also the major component of coal, petroleum, asphalt, limestone, and most materials made by plants and animals. The name carbon is derived from the Latin word carbo, meaning charcoal, a material that is composed primarily of carbon.

A carbon atom can chemically combine with atoms of other elements, as well as with other carbon atoms, to form molecules. Molecules that contain two or more elements make up compounds. Carbon can form more compounds than can any other element except hydrogen.

Carbon is present in all substances known as organic compounds. Originally, scientists used the term organic compounds for materials that could only be obtained from living or dead organisms. Today chemists consider nearly any compound that contains carbon to be organic, whether they obtain it from organisms or synthesize it in a laboratory or in factories. Compounds that do not contain carbon are called inorganic compounds.

Carbon atoms form part or all of the backbone for the major molecules of all living things on Earth, including sugars, proteins, fats, and deoxyribonucleic acids (DNA), the molecules that carry the genetic code of living organisms. Many of the materials that we use in everyday life contain carbon-rich organic compounds. For instance, we wear clothing made of organic compounds—either natural fibers, such as wool, silk, or cotton; or synthetic ones, such as nylon or polyester. We construct our houses and furnishings from organic materials, such as wood and plastics. We burn carbon-rich fossil fuels, including gasoline, natural gas, and coal, for heat and energy. In addition, we use organic compounds as pesticides and medicines, and the foods we eat are carbon compounds.

Contributors

Lutz, Patricia, B.S., M.A., Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Chemistry and Chair, Faculty of Science, Wagner College.



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