Home / What is Nano? / Many faces of carbon

The many faces
of carbon

Carbon is found everywhere on earth. It is found in the farthest reaches of the atmosphere, to the lowest depths of the oceans and is the second most common element in our body after oxygen. It can be a diamond, graphite, graphene, carbon nanotubes and fullerenes. But how can one atom make so many different materials? Nanotechnology makes use of all of the different shapes of carbon for their different properties.

It’s all in the bonding

Bonding is something that atoms do to stick together and the way that they choose to stick together at the nanoscale can lead them to look completely different when they are large enough for us to see. Carbon is one element that can stick together in lots of different ways, and that determines whether it is a carbon nanotube, graphite or diamond.

The different forms of carbon

We’ve known about and been using materials like graphite and diamond for centuries. But the other types of carbon have only been known about more recently and once we knew they existed it’s taken a long time for us to be able to make them ourselves in a lab and longer still to make them in bulk for use in products.

Graphene is made from carbon atoms that form a flat sheet in a pattern like chicken mesh. Though it is not thought to be used commercially as yet, it could be very useful in computing, sensors and coatings.

Graphite is made from lots of graphene sheets piled on top of each other - when you write with a pencil these layers are being wiped off onto the page.

Diamond is made from carbon atoms stuck together very tightly - the bonds between them are very difficult to break, making diamond a very strong material and used for its hardness, particularly in jewellery and industrial cutting tools.

Carbon nanotubes are made from carbon atoms that have stuck together in such a way as to form a very long cylinder. They are unusually strong and can be used to make products as diverse as cars, tennis racquets and potentially body armour. They are conductive and are revolutionising computing, they can be used as delivery vessels for drugs, to make solar cells and for new forms of energy storage and conversion.

Fullerenes are made from carbon atoms that stick together to form a ball (they have segments that look a bit like a football). There are lots of fullerenes made from different numbers of carbon atoms, particularly popular ones are ‘buckminster fullernenes’ that are made from 60 carbon atoms. Fullerenes have used in semiconductors, pharmaceuticals and even in cosmetics.

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