What is Carbon?

What is Carbon?

Undoubtedly, you’ve heard plenty of mentions of carbon or CO2 in recent years. It’s a topic that’s discussed a lot, and revolves around fuels, the environment, society, policy, and most importantly: climate change.

By learning more about carbon, you'll better understand how it fits into our natural environment and the modern world, and what kinds of actions might be important for us to consider moving forward.

What is carbon made of?

Carbon is a complicated topic in terms of science and engineering, but also in terms of society. The history and impact of carbon can fill many books—but let’s start by talking about what it is. At the very starting point, carbon is an element. It’s one of the essential building blocks of all matter. Among the elements, carbon is special because it is able to sustain a wider range of different bonds. As a result, the properties of carbon are essential for creating and sustaining all life on Earth. Long, complicated molecules are made of carbon chains, and such materials are considered organic. Anything organic has carbon in it, and all life on Earth is closely tied to organic materials. As a result, you can find carbon everywhere. Trees require carbon to produce oxygen and therefore store a lot of CO2. Anything that you can eat that has nutritional value is made of carbon; even the air we breathe in and out contains carbon.

To be more specific, today, carbon sits at the center of many conversations around industrial products and climate change. We’ll get into more details later, but it’s important to understand that both natural and industrial processes produce carbon compounds, and that comes with both positive and negative consequences.

How carbon works

Carbon, and its place in the world, starts to make a lot more sense within the perspective of the carbon cycle. This is a process that describes how carbon is used and recycled through natural processes.

One of the most abundant sources of carbon on Earth is in the atmosphere as CO2 (other sources include the ocean, rock formations, plant soil and fossil fuels). Carbon dioxide is absorbed by plants and other life forms that use CO2 in photosynthesis to produce oxygen. Photosynthesizing life forms such as plants are consumed by animals, bacteria, fungi and other life forms on the planet. Through that consumption, organisms extract the carbon that is present in plant life, which is then used to build up these other organisms. As a result of this, carbon continues to build and moves up the food chain.

These organisms often utilize respiration, which is a biological process of extracting energy from carbon compounds. Respirating organisms ultimately release CO2 back into the atmosphere as part of their own lifecycle.

Beyond that, organisms release CO2 when they die as a part of decomposition. The remains of dead plants and animals sit underground for millions of years. Over time, pressure turns these remains into petroleum, natural gas and other carbon-based energy sources like peat or coal.

Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have extracted those carbon-rich and energy-dense resources that had remained untouched for countless years. Humans have since burned them at an unprecedented scale, releasing the carbon back into the atmosphere as CO2. That’s the general overview of what the carbon cycle looks like on Earth. Carbon is not created or destroyed in the process. It merely moves around and changes form. However, actively extracting fossil fuels from the ground increases the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, which ultimately increases the rate of global warming.

Carbon uses

Carbon compounds are used for almost everything in the modern economy. Carbon is essential in any organic material, including food, oils, lubricants and more. It’s also a vital component of plastics and rubbers. Raw materials all use carbon to some extent.

When it comes to fuel, carbon compounds form the most common fuels that we use. This is true for gasoline, diesel, natural gas, coal, and biofuels like ethanol.

Carbon is present pretty much everywhere in the modern economy, and it works by providing the primary molecular bond structure for countless organic materials that we use across industrial supply chains and in everyday life. We’ll get more into carbon byproducts a little later, but it’s important to understand that modern society is built on carbon compounds.

Carbon dioxide as a solution 

As mentioned above, carbon is abundant in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2), which with modern technology, can be transformed into a useful resource. The truth is that CO2 has many positive applications in the world, although some of these applications come with some serious environmental consequences, which we’ll talk about in the next section.

Plastics are made from carbon-based fossil fuels and currently play a major role in supply chain packaging and distribution. For example, plastic materials allow medical facilities to maintain sanitary conditions; plastic wrapping keeps food safe; plastic gloves protect your hands. You get the idea. Carbon is used for filtration as well. Carbon-based filters clean water, pull toxins out of the air and protect the environment from many industrial byproducts. At the consumer level, carbon is widely used. 

This remains true at the industrial level and the implications are much larger. Even though carbon-based fuels come with emissions concerns, combustion of carbon-based fossil fuels is the primary way to create heat, electricity, and fuel for transportation worldwide right now. Fossil fuels are responsible for the vast majority of electricity generation, manufacturing of consumer and industrial products, global transportation, and movement of goods. 

As our society has introduced more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through the burning of carbon-based fuels and other industrial activities, we have accelerated climate change.

Environmental impact of carbon

While essential to all life on Earth, when emitted in abundance, carbon can become detrimental. It’s currently causing a long list of problems for our environment. While there are other major concerns, two specific aspects of carbon come with serious environmental impacts. 

The first is plastics. Carbon products like plastics take a very long time to decompose, and as they do, they can create toxins and harm ecosystems and the wildlife that rely on these ecosystems. This is true for plastics that end up in the sea, for example, while plastics that come from landfills can release toxins into groundwater, leading to other environmental and health concerns. 

Waste carbon dioxide is the second major concern as it relates to carbon impacting the environment. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) gases into the atmosphere. These are both greenhouse gases that play a major role in global warming and climate change.

Increased GHG emissions concentrations in the atmosphere cause the greenhouse gas effect,  which means that CO2 and other GHGs trap heat in the atmosphere that would normally leave the surface of Earth as infrared radiation. This ultimately increases the overall temperature on the planet and creates a dangerous cycle that causes consistent warming over long periods of time.

Additional impacts of the greenhouse effect and rising temperatures include water scarcity and droughts, mass forced migration, biodiversity loss, forest fires, more intense hurricanes and floods and more. The rapid increase in concentrations of GHGs in the atmosphere  is largely due to industrial processes, like using fossil fuels that emit CO2 when combusted. The buildup of these gases has already caused global temperatures to increase noticeably over the last hundred years, and there is major concern about the long-term effects of continued warming trends.

Left unchecked, these trends could lead to catastrophic global issues, including environmental, economic, social and political instability. It’s important to note  that we are already experiencing some of these effects in various parts of the world and as such, have to work to mitigate the ongoing release of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Becoming carbon neutral and carbon negative

In the face of climate change, there’s an exciting and urgent opportunity to use carbon as a solution, while mitigating dangerous byproducts.This is true for a wide range of carbon-based products. 

The general consensus is that the key to addressing climate change will be reducing fossil fuel-derived carbon dioxide emissions across the economy, which is often referred to as decarbonization. This is best understood in terms of CO2 emissions. We won’t be able to eliminate all of the industries that produce CO2, so instead we need to look at other ways to lower emissions from the existing processes, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and remove excess CO2 from the air.

Using a combination of these solutions, societies can strive for carbon neutrality. A carbon-neutral society is one that does not add to the total amount of CO2 in the air. Instead, there is a balance of carbon that is emitted, removed and utilized. For every kilogram of CO2 that is produced by society, one kilogram of CO2 will be removed from the atmosphere to compensate.

There are carbon solutions that allow us to reduce CO2 emissions from existing processes, produce useful products from more sustainable feedstocks to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and remove CO2 from the atmosphere altogether. However, these technologies are in various stages of development. Carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technologies take CO2 directly from the source of emission, preventing it from entering the atmosphere. Direct air capture (DAC) removes CO2 directly from the atmosphere.

At AIR COMPANY, our AIRMADE™ Technology is an example of a CCUS solution that allows us to utilize point-source captured CO2 and convert it into alcohols and for consumer and industrial use. By combining CO2 capture and utilization with clean energy technologies such as renewables, we can decrease the global economy’s  reliance on fossil fuels. This would help reduce global emissions and ultimately slow the pace of climate change.

The future of CO2

Modern society depends on its ability to reduce CO2 emissions in the coming years.

At AIR COMPANY, we’re leading the charge for decarbonization by utilizing captured carbon and turning it into sustainable alcohols and fuels. By taking CO2 and converting it into something of value, we hope to slow the tide of climate change and do our part in creating a greener world for all that live here.

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