Is Carbon Flammable? (A 5 point guide)

This article will answer the following question: “Is Carbon Flammable?”. We will reveal important matters regarding many types of things that have carbon, and also explain what carbon is and in which conditions it can burn.

Is Carbon Flammable?

It depends. Pure carbon materials are normally not flammable. Other molecules that are majority made of carbon (such as hydrocarbons, alcohols, and other kinds of organic molecules) are generally flammable, and they can only burn because of carbon.

What is carbon?

First of all, we need to make an important distinction about what carbon is.

Carbon is an atom. There are many synthetic and natural materials that have carbon within. Theoretically, carbon can be linked with nearly anything in the periodic table.

Atoms (in the way they are expressed in the periodic table) often can’t be found alone, naturally. They are always connected with another atom (or with a twin), or they present themselves in an ionic form.

Carbon can be found in Earth’s atmosphere as carbon dioxide but is also dissolved in all natural waters. It’s a component of rocks (in the form of calcium carbonates, limestones, overall). 

There are also Hydrocarbon forms, of which coal, petroleum, and natural gas are the most abundant. There are about 10 million known carbon compounds

One of the reasons that carbon is so important is its ability to bond and create other compounds, but we will discuss that later.

Carbon is one of the building blocks of life and organic molecules, but in such cases, there must be other building blocks linked together.

There are materials that are practically only made of carbon, and these are the ones we will focus on in this article. 

The two more important are graphite and diamond. They are made from the exact same ingredient, but the way the carbons connect with each other makes them look nothing like another.

There are many forms of carbon, called allotropes. They are:

  • Graphite
  • Diamond
  • Lonsdaleite
  • Buckminsterfullerene
  • Fullerite
  • Fullerene
  • Amorphous Carbon
  • Cyclocarbon
  • Carbon Nanobuds 
  • Schwarzites
  • Glassy Carbon 
  • Carbyne

Every one of these names is a class of molecules made only by carbon (but they can have impurities). Each one has its own properties. We will discuss the most common ones.

Chemistry

Atoms are never lost. No matter if we crush them, toss them into a fire, or add very strong acid to them. Chemistry only deals with the rearranging of atoms.

But of course, atoms can be lost if they are radioactive. But even then, atoms simply turn into other atoms and release energy (a great deal of energy, hence why nuclear power stations produce so much energy).

A carbon atom is capable of making 4 bondings, grating it a huge possibility of materials. Besides, no carbon connection is like another, unless it is in the exact same scenario, because carbon bondings are malleable. 

All life uses the same ingredients, but carbon’s abilities make life surprisingly diverse.

Carbon overall properties

A carbon atom is something that has the atomic number of 6, which means it has 6 protons on its nucleus. This number is the signature of an atom, it’s what gives them their identity.

An atom also has neutrons and electrons. The nucleus is made of protons and neutrons, firmly bonded together. Circling around the nucleus we have the electrons, and these are the only ones who move in chemical reactions.

The energy that makes a nucleus stay cohesive is around a million times greater than the energy electrons gain and lose in chemical reactions. It’s like we needed to burn a million hydrogen molecules to get the same energy a single hydrogen atom has.

The right image in the picture is a representation of a carbon atom. You can see that it has 6 electrons (the green balls). So why does it only makes four connections?

Not all electrons participate in chemical reactions, only the valency electrons. In the case of carbon, there are four of them.

Another important property of carbon is that it doesn’t really wanna lose its electrons, nor wanna gain more. Carbons like to share electrons more or less equally with other substances.

Ionic species like salts, halogens and earth metals don’t like to share electrons, they appreciate losing or gaining only. This is why they are simple and can’t create complex structures like carbon. does.

Carbon flammability

As you can imagine, it’s not easy to discuss how flammable carbon is because it depends on every material.

If we think only theoretically and philosophically, carbon is the one atom that in fact suffers combustion, along with hydrogen. 

Combustion is when oxygen reacts chemically with a fuel. From that reaction, chemical bonds of carbon-oxygen and hydrogen-oxygen are formed. It’s like oxygen finds its way into molecules and stays there.

When something burns, it is because the byproducts of the combustion are stable and generate a lot of energy (that same energy we discussed when we spoke about electrons and bondings).

So now we understood that carbon not only can burn, it is in fact what burns in a fire. But the following problem still remains: what carbon materials and in which condition do they burn?

Well, it all depends on whether the reaction with oxygen (oxidation) can happen or not. The carbon in the fuel molecules must be able to abandon its own bondings and create new ones with oxygen.

If the carbon is already very stable, it will not want to migrate. Although, it can always react at some point.

So, every carbon atom, in any substance, can burn?

In theory, yes. But some compounds must be given a lot of heat so that can happen. Graphite and diamond are examples of that. The temperature required to do so is often higher than in industrial kilns.

Graphite flammability

Graphite can only burn if its molecules are propense to do so. It can only happen if the material is at temperatures really, really high (about 650ºC, in some conditions), so the molecules can become flammable. 

Because of that, graphite is used to compose fire-retardant materials.

Pure carbon forms have only strong carbon-carbon bondings. The structures are very concise and present high stability.

Hydrocarbons, although, have much weaker connections, ones that can break to react with oxygen and burn.

In order for burning to happen, the fuel molecules must not only exchange their connections for more stable ones, but the fuel itself must be physically and chemically available so the burn can happen.

Take a diamond molecule for example. Doesn’t its bondings look strong?

All these three allotropic forms of carbon are solids. The only difference is how their bondings connect and arrange themselves spatially.

Graphite is made of layers of what we call graphene. If you roll a graphene layer it’s possible to create a carbon nanotube, as seen in the picture above.

If you loo close to their structure you will see carbon making 3 connections. In fact, the remaining electron is on top of the carbon sheet, in a specific state of hybridization. 

These electrons can move freely on the surface, which is why the molecule is a good electrical conductor, among other important properties. These allotropic forms have many applications in nanotechnology, environmental issues, and electrical components.

Diamonds flammability

Diamonds can burn as well, but only in temperatures even higher than graphite. Diamonds are used in drilling oil wells, due to their hardness and ability to sustain mechanical pressure and heat.

This is only possible because of their chemical structure that’s surprisingly strong, compact, and concise.

Of course, diamonds are not indestructible. They can still burn as we mentioned, but can also break, shatter and scrape. That’s what jewelers do when they lapidate a piece of diamond.

These workers don’t need industrial equipment to do so. They can mold the diamond by using precise tools that apply a lot of heat and pressure to a single point, being able to chip the material.

Conclusion

Carbon is the name of an atom that composes millions of compounds. Some can and will burn, some require an amount of energy that can’t even be achieved industrially. Graphite and diamond, the most common forms, are not flammable.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQS): Is Carbon Flammable?

is carbonated water bad for you?

No. Carbonated water appears to have no effect on bone health, which is one of the most common claims against it. Cola drinkers may consume insufficient calcium and too much phosphorous, which is a potential risk factor for bone loss.

Carbonated water is not acid enough to become bad for us. But of course, sodas may contain a huge quantity of sugar that is surely bad for us. 

The other components of sodas such as additives can be controversial, but science still hasn’t put a final dot to this question.

is carbon a metal?

Carbon is considered a true nonmetal.

Carbon compounds look nothing like metals. Its three most common allotropic forms (graphite, diamond and fullerene) are not metal or metal-like.

is carbon dioxide a greenhouse gas?

Yes. Almost 80% of the greenhouse effect is thanks to carbon dioxide. Methane composes 11% of the threat, nitrous oxide 7%, and fluorinated gases combined, 3%.

If we take one molecule of carbon dioxide and one of methane alone, the methane is a worse greenhouse gas. But carbon dioxide is in a bigger quantity, so it’s a bigger threat.

Plants take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and produce glucose and other compounds, it is their source of food. 

Carbon dioxide is only a greenhouse problem because we made too much of it reach the atmosphere, and because we killed the plants by enhancing deforestation, which could help us get around the situation.

is carbon monoxide a compound?

Yes. Carbon monoxide is made of one carbon and one oxygen, so it’s composed of two different things. Carbon monoxide arises normally when an incomplete combustion reaction happens between the carbon of a fuel and the oxygen in the air.

Citations

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allotropes_of_carbon
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diamond
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graphite
https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/11350263
https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/element/Carbon#section=Uses
https://amerex-fire.com/upl/downloads/safety-data-sheets/english/class-d-graphite-powder-970ba2c9.pdf
https://www.hindawi.com/journals/stni/2011/589747/
https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/is-carbonated-water-bad-for-you#:~:text=studies%20are%20necessary.-,The%20bottom%20line,swallowing%20ability%20and%20reducing%20constipation.
https://www.jstor.org/stable/73489

What was missing from this post which could have made it better?

Leave a Comment