The four worlds of carbon

Our element of the month is carbon. Carbon is so ubiquitous, with its various allotropes and as part of the many, many compounds and living organisms it makes up, that it’s hard to know where to start. Well, why not in New York City? As Simon Friedman from the University of Missouri Kansas City — interviewed here in Reactions — puts it in his article (subscription required) “The organic chemist’s view of carbon can be like the New Yorker’s view of the world, which to them ends at the edge of Manhattan.” And so he goes on to explain.

The first world of carbon is undeniably organic chemistry, with the incredibly varied species — such as drugs, pesticides, dyes — that it endeavours to synthesize. Yet beside the undisputed, elegant role carbon assumes in organic chemistry, it is also a key component of steel. It is true that iron is by itself a useful material, but it is carbon doping that converts it into steel, an altogether much stronger, much more durable material that can be used to build robust structures. Read Friedman’s article to find out how carbon atoms achieve this.

Another world of carbon — also related to materials and their bulk properties — that has become an inherent part of our lives is plastic. It’s hard to fully grasp just how omnipresent plastics are, from invaluable and advanced items (for example, lenses implanted within the eye) to an unfortunate mountain of junk items filling up landfill sites and even covering a vast area of the Pacific Ocean. Some forms of carbon really are forever, or close enough that we must think carefully about whether this is a good thing or not before (over)using them.

Finally, the last thing you can do with your carbon-based molecules is burn them for energy. We’ve been relying on oil, coal and natural gas for energy — yet in terms of usage of carbon this is more than a little upsetting. I particularly like how Friedman expresses this sentiment: “to the organic chemist, simply burning carbon for its energy must surely be akin to burning your books when you are cold, or eating next year’s seeds when you are hungry”.


Anne Pichon (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)