All matters are made up of basic natural elements. They are masterfully presented in the Periodic Table whose current listing shows 118 elements, with more to be added after being discovered. Some of the most abundant ones are: hydrogen, oxygen, silicon, aluminum, iron, and carbon. Consequently, most common materials existing on earth are also made up of those elements, for instance, water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Over 90% of our body weight consists of just three elements — oxygen, carbon and hydrogen.
Chemical reactions between the basic elements have enabled humans to invent all kinds of products by combining them effectively in different ways. The invention of plastic in 1907 has brought tremendous changes to the world, with benefits for use as well as headaches for disposal. The introduction of lightweight composite materials in airplanes and cars to replace aluminum will save a lot of fuel, but their disposal problems remain to be seen.
According to the National Geographic Magazine (May 2013), three new materials stand out because of their high potential for use in manufacturing industries. They all happen to be carbon materials existing in different forms.
The first one is called buckminsterfullerene. It’s a natural form of carbon whose molecules look like soccer balls with carbon atoms interlocking one another. It’s extremely strong, even stronger than diamond that is also carbon based. Like industrial diamond, this material will find usage in drilling and manufacturing.
The second one is called aerographite. It has four distinct properties: extremely lightweight, highly resilient, conducts electricity, and absorbs almost all light (making it darker than coal). How can it be used? What about in solar panels? Based on current technology, the efficiency rate for solar cells is only 25%. Solar panels can be made much more efficient by incorporating aerographite. This material can be densely packed onto the solar panel without significantly increasing its weight. It will enable the panel to absorb more sunlight and improve the flow of electricity at the same time.
The third material of interest is graphene. It is made up of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb pattern. It has extreme tensile strength. A string of graphene with a diameter of less than a human hair can hold up an object weighing about half a ton. This is most suitable for making cables for suspension bridges and other building supports.
Among all the elements on earth, carbon seems to have the most intimate relationship with our way of life. First, it exists in our body as one of three basic elements as mentioned earlier. Second, to obtain energy, we have been accustomed (or addicted) to burning fossil fuels containing carbon. Third, new carbon materials in different forms are being discovered with great potential for the future. Fourth, something we may not want to know, carbon may turn out to be the biggest challenge (or curse) in this century. How many wars have we fought over oil (a form of hydro carbon)? Furthermore, we have allowed too much carbon to escape into the atmosphere in the form of greenhouse gases especially carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels.
Whether humans are responsible for much of the carbon in the air can be debated forever. The fact is that the increasingly huge quantities of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are beyond the ability of all the green plants and oceans in the world to absorb. The consequence of this imbalance is the gradual warming up of the planet. A few degrees higher will cause the climate to change drastically in the form of unprecedented rains, droughts, snows, storms, and the rise of ocean levels. This will severely impact coastal cities and the world’s food supply. What should be done? We may debate forever as to what to do. Due to its great impacts on life and civilization, both positive and negative, carbon is destined to become the element of the 21st century.