Copyright © 2007 Dorling Kindersley
The study of all compounds that contain carbon is called organic chemistry. Carbon atoms are unique. They can combine with each other to make molecules that contain hundreds, even thousands, of carbon atoms. There are more CARBON COMPOUNDS than compounds of all the other elements put together. CARBON TECHNOLOGY uses carbon compounds to make many modern materials, from the interiors of aircraft to medicines.
From butterfly wings to the petals of a flower, all living things are made of carbon compounds. All the processes that happen in living things – such as digestion, movement, and growth – are chemical reactions involving carbon compounds. It is the ability of carbon to make so many different compounds that results in the rich diversity of life on Earth.
Many carbon compounds contain the same few elements, but in different quantities and arranged in different ways. The most important elements to join with carbon are hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Carbon atoms can form chains of just carbon and hydrogen, which are called hydrocarbons. They can also form rings of carbon, called aromatics.
The carbon industry is one of the largest and most important industries because so many products contain organic (carbon) compounds. Carbon technology is vital to the production of medicines, paints, synthetic fabrics, food flavourings, plastics, cosmetics, and glues. The raw materials that are the basis for these products come from coal, crude oil, and natural gas.
Polyacrylonitrile (PAN) is heated to 3,000°C (5,432°F) to create thin filaments of carbon fibre. This material is fireproof and five times lighter than steel, yet twice as strong. Carbon fibre has many uses, such as in lightweight sports equipment, car body panels, construction pipes, and on the wings and nose of space shuttles.