What is carbon?

  • Carbon is a non-metal element. At room temperature it is in a solid state.

  • Carbon exists in different forms, including graphite, diamond and graphene.

  • Depending on its form carbon has different properties.

Find out from Team GB Paralympian Stef Reid how the properties of carbon make it a useful material for a running blade

What is carbon?

Carbon is made up of just one type of atom. This means carbon is an element.

Carbon atoms are arranged in a regular pattern, meaning carbon is solid at room temperature.

An atom of carbon

Different forms of carbon

Atoms of carbon can be arranged in different patterns. This means that there are different forms of carbon.

Each form of carbon has its own properties:

Diamond

Diamond is transparent. It can be cut into shapes that sparkle for jewellery. It is also extremely hard, making it perfect for drills.

Graphite

The atoms in graphite are arranged in layers that slide over each other. This makes graphite slippery. It is sometimes used instead of oil to lubricate locks. Graphite is the only non-metal element that conducts electricity.

Graphene

Graphene is a recently discovered material. It has been found to be 300 times stronger than steel and much harder than diamonds.

Unlike graphite, graphene only contains a single layer of carbon atoms.

Scientists are still working out how we could use it, but in the future it could be used to make better gloves, sportswear and medical devices.

A diamond and graphite molecule
LEFT: The structure of diamond showing each carbon atom joined to four others. RIGHT: The structure of graphite with atoms of carbon arranged in layers.

What are carbon fibres?

Carbon fibres are long, thin strands of carbon. They are strong, stiff and light.

Bundles of carbon fibres are woven together to make a sort of fabric. The fabric is baked with a plastic resin to make a composite material that is perfect for running blades, bicycles, aeroplanes and wind turbines.

Element of life

The human body is about 20% carbon. This carbon is not present as an element, but is joined with atoms of other elements, such as hydrogen and oxygen. All living things consist mostly of carbon-containing compounds.

Activity - carbon

Carbon quiz

Test your knowledge of carbon with this quick quiz.

Where next?

Discover more about this topic from around Bitesize.

What is carbon dioxide?
What is hydrogen?
What are carbohydrates?