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The history of carbon

With a big "C"


Carbon is not part of these Big Bang elements, requiring very specific conditions. However, it is produced in the largest stars, where three helium nuclei fuse.

Its symbol is the letter C and its atomic number is 6. It is part of the non-metal family. There are 4 density categories: amorphous, graphite, diamond and gem diamond. Black in colour, its density ranges from 1.8 to 3.5. The notion of carbon element was born with René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, a French physicist and naturalist. This scientist studied the formation of steel from iron. Carbon is at the head of the crystallogenes, or 14th group of the periodic table.

The word "Carbon" comes from the Latin word "carbo", meaning coal. It has been known since prehistoric times in different forms: soot or charcoal, famous among the Romans. Several discoveries mark its history. Lavoisier in 1772, for example, demonstrated that diamond is a form of carbon, just like coal. Indeed, he noted, following the combustion of these two elements, the quantitative formation of CO2 but no formation of water. The same was true for graphite, discovered in 1779 by Carl Wilhelm Scheele. Carbon is said to have several allotropic forms. It is also at the origin of inorganic compound elements such as carbon dioxide and methane, or even certain polymers. Carbon is then recognized as the basic element of all life forms. Its boiling point is 3825 °C: this moment is called sublimation.

Carbon is the 4th most abundant element in the universe and the 15th on Earth. We find it in the form of coal and diamonds, what we call the simple body state. In the state of organic compounds, it is present in the form of oil or natural gas. Elemental carbon is often inert and insoluble, either in water or in organic solvents. At elevated temperatures, it oxidizes and forms monoxide and carbon dioxide. Linked to hydrogen, millions of compounds are known, notably in fauna and flora. Deposits of organic matter from living fossilize to give various hydrocarbons. Carbonates are included in many minerals such as gypsum and marble.

The word "carbone" appeared in the dictionary of the Académie française at its 6th edition in 1832. Indeed, the 19th century was the century of the carbon boom, notably for energy production.

Carbon utilization

The first uses of carbon go back several centuries. It was used, for example, to exclude air from alcohol bottles. In the form of a free element, the carbon present in diamonds is useful in jewellery and industry. Its hardness is then put forward. Graphite is used as a lubricant and is thus found in pencil leads. In composite form, carbon has many applications. CO2, for example, is used in beverages (addition of gas bubbles), in fire extinguishers, or as a refrigerant in the form of dry ice in the semiconductor industry. Carbon monoxide is used as a reducing gas in many industrial processes. Many metal carbides are appreciated for their high heat resistance. Carbon tetrachloride and carbon disulfide are important solvents. The chlorofluorocarbon, also called Freon R12, is a gas used in cooling systems.

Carbon can also be used as a fibre. This material is known for its low density, flexibility and strength. Indeed, it is particularly resistant to traction and compression, in addition to being an excellent electrical and thermal conductor.

In 2016, the JEC, the world's largest trade fair dedicated to composites, highlighted carbon fibre. The aviation industry has propelled carbon to the forefront by using it in their new programs, such as the Boeing Dreamliner or the A350 Airbus. Indeed, this plane contains 50% carbon fiber in its primary structure. In addition, other future gear would contain more. We have recently witnessed a revolution in automobile construction thanks to carbon fiber. The use of this material would lighten the vehicles by 70% compared to their initial weight. The ecological impact of any creation and use being controlled, the professionals put forward the fact that 100 kilograms saved would make it possible to gain 1 gram of CO2. Since carbon can be used in almost every part of the car, manufacturers could reduce the final weight by 300 kilograms. Carbon fibre also arrives on our roads. The TEXGRID® CV 200 solution has been developed to offer a simple and economical alternative for pavement reinforcement. Thanks to its carbon fibres, this solution - applied in full width - strengthens pavements in a way equivalent to 4cm of asphalt mix, while ensuring the anti-cracking function. Carbon fibres, 3 times stiffer than glass fibres, thus take up 3 x more forces for the same deformation. TEXUM has also created the TEXGRID® SAMI GIRO solution, specially designed to reinforce roundabouts. The use of this structure combining - in a multidirectional way - the rigidity of carbon with the elasticity of the modified bitumen of the SAMI membrane makes it possible to respond to the specific constraints encountered at roundabouts. In addition to its mechanical properties, its implementation is a key point highlighting the performance of this solution.

Health effects of carbon

Carbon can be dangerous in certain non-elementary forms, although pure, its toxicity is low for humans. Chronic inhalation of black carbon can cause irreversible damage to the lungs or heart, but carbon can be safely handled when it is in the form of carbon or graphite. We can note that there are several different carbons. For example, carbon-14 can induce a proven cancer risk because it can bind organically to the body's cells because of its radioactivity. It is mainly used to know the absolute age. This process is called carbon-14 dating. Due to advances in technology and science, carbon is still much studied today.

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