What is carbon?

It is the graphite in our pencils, the diamond in our rings, the oil in our cars, the sugar in our coffee, the DNA in our cells, the air in our lungs, the food on our plates, the cement in our sidewalks, the steel in our skyscrapers, the charcoal in our grills, the fizz in our sodas, the foam in our fire extinguishers, the ink in our pens, the plastic in our toys, the bugs in our gardens, the wood in our chairs, the leather in our jackets, the electrodes in our batteries, the rubber in our tires, the coal in our power plants, the nano in our nanotechnology, and the humus in our soils.

Carbon is everywhere. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe, the fifteenth most abundant element on Earth, and the second most abundant in the human body, after oxygen. Carbon is present in all known life forms. It can be found dissolved in all water bodies on the planet. It is abundant in the Sun, stars, comets, meteorites, and in the atmospheres of most planets (the atmosphere of Mars is 96% carbon dioxide). Carbon is Number Six on the Periodic Chart of the elements, between Boron and Nitrogen. It exists in many inorganic compounds (gases, rocks, liquids) and all organic ones.

Carbon is star dust. It first formed in the interiors of stars, not long after the Big Bang, and then scattered into space as dust as a result of supernova explosions. Over time, it coalesced into star systems, such as ours, as well as planets, comets, and other heavenly bodies. Eventually, it coalesced into us. We are star dust.

Carbon is promiscuous. It forms more compounds than any other element, with almost ten million compounds discovered to date – a tiny fraction of all theoretically possible. Carbon especially likes to bond with other small atoms, including other carbon atoms, and is capable of forming long chains of complex and stable compounds, which is why it is found in so many different forms on Earth.

Carbon is history. In antiquity, it was called “carbo” which is Latin for coal or charcoal. Carbon was well known to the earliest humans as soot and to the earliest civilizations as diamonds. The Romans made charcoal for cooking and the Amazonians made terra preta (biochar) for burying, to improve their nutrient-poor soils. No one knew it was all the same element until 1694 when French chemist Antoine Lavoisier pooled his money to buy a diamond, which he placed in a closed glass jar. He focused the sun’s rays on the diamond with a magnifying glass and saw the diamond burn and disappear. The jar was filled with carbon dioxide – just like what happened to charcoal in an earlier experiment. He called common element “carbone.” In 1779, scientist Carl Scheele did the same thing with graphite – and carbon’s reputation took off.

Carbon is energy. Coal, oil, natural gas (methane), shale gas, tar sands, bitumen, and everything in between are all hydrocarons – a highly stable, and yet easily combustible, bond between hydrogen and carbon. Refrigerants, lubricants, solvents, plastics, chemical feedstocks, and other types of petrochemicals are all hydrocarbons. The world would literally grind to a halt without carbon.

Carbon is life. It exists in every organic life form. Life is impossible without it. When combined with water, it forms sugars, fats, alcohols, fats, and terpenes. When combined with nitrogen and sulfur it forms amino acids, antibiotics, and alkaloids. With the addition of phosphorus, it forms DNA and RNA, the essential codes of life, as well as ATP, the critical energy-transfer molecule found in all living cells. The carbon atom is the essential building block of life. Every part of your body is made up of chains of carbon atoms, which is why we are known as “carbon-based life forms”.

Carbon is a miracle. Chemically, we’re just a bunch of inert compounds. What breathes life into us? The answer is the relationship between the molecules of energy and nutrients, fueled by carbon and water. Billions of years ago, Earth was just geology and chemistry – no biology. Then something happened to spark life, something mysterious. Between the geochemical origins of Earth and its eventual biological life is something scientists call a ‘black box’ – a figurative box they cannot peer into. Below the box are chemicals, above it, DNA. The link is carbon, scientists agree, but how it happened precisely remains a mystery.

Carbon is hope. Because where there’s life, there’s hope.