This is a (very) long essay written in 2009 about carbon, what it is, why it makes for such a usable and abundant energy source, and what that means for the health of the planet. It was originally intended as a chapter in a long-abandoned book. Frankly, it is a bit scattered but I don’t have the time or patience to make it flow better. Bad, bad, Will.
Some editing was done to repair the ravages of my poor writing skills, and to fix numerous mistakes in spelling, syntax, and grammar, not that it did any good. I have lots of this sort of essay in my quiver. Since I rarely have useful new ideas I suspect I will be going to the well of my previous prolificity more often, as I attempt to make this blog more relevant. Here we go.
Carbon is element number 6 on the periodic table of elements. It has an atomic weight of 12. This means that it consists of a nucleus consisting of 6 protons and 6 neutrons. So that it is chemically and electrically stable it is surrounded by 6 electrons, which balance the electric charge of the 6 protons. These electrons are configured in two levels, the first with 2 electrons and the second with 4 electrons. Most of us are aware, from high school chemistry, that the first electron level has room for 2 electrons and the second electron level has room for 8 electrons. Therefore, because carbon has four electrons in the second level it is considered tetravalent, which means it has four spaces on the second electron level that can be filled by electrons from other elements when combining to form the molecules of a compound.
Carbon is the smallest atom which is tetravalent. This is significant when we consider that any tetravalent atom, such as carbon, with it’s four available spaces on the second electron level, is likely to form any number of diverse, yet very stable compounds. Reality shows us that this is true, as the millions of carbon compounds that exist on earth form a large number of the compounds known to science. These compounds are diverse because the available spaces for electrons allow for a great number of possible atomic combinations. They are stable electrically because on the second electron level there are an equal number of electrons from carbon as there are from the other atoms. This factor creates a very stable electron field in the outermost electron layers of any carbon compound, where most of the fluctuations and recombining take place.
Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen. It is a vital component of the carbon-nitrogen cycle, which is the means stars use to convert hydrogen into helium. This cycle is the most basic and largest source of energy in the universe. So we can see that carbon and energy production are involved together at the most basic level. Carbon has perhaps the widest diversity of physical properties of any element. In its pure state, it exists both as graphite, one of the softest and most opaque substances and diamond, one of the hardest and most transparent of substances.
Carbon is one of the most essential elements required for life as we know it. All entities we know of as living contain carbon. It is the second most abundant element in the human body next to oxygen. It has the highest melting point of any element and its compounds are so stable that it requires very high temperatures for them to react with oxygen.
Carbon does a dance with hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen in a cycle of life on earth. All life forms on earth are made up of these same elements that dominate the earth and its atmosphere. Both plant and animal life are involved in complex chemical cycles that are essential to life on earth, but the most telling part of these cycles is that organic life on earth, in both life and death, contains tremendous amounts of carbon.
I have mentioned these properties of carbon, and it’s vital intertwining with life on earth, to reveal the reasons why carbon compounds are perfectly suited to be used as fuels. They point to why the use of carbon fuels is so prevalent on our planet. All chemical reactions involve the application of energy, which is often manifest in the form of heat. Most chemical reactions are exothermic, which means they give off more energy, in the form of heat, than they use up. We have seen, through thermonuclear reactions, which, breaking up the word, is thermo, or heat, and nuclear, concerning the nucleus, that there is a tremendous amount of energy involved in the combining relationships between atoms, elements, molecules, and compounds. This huge amount of energy liberates equally huge amounts of heat.
Because carbon is tetravalent its compounds tend to be very stable. This means that the bonds created by the chemical reactions that create these compounds are held together by tremendous energy. Although it takes great energy to get carbon compounds to burn or react with oxygen, the act of burning breaks down those powerful bonds, releasing the incredible amount of energy that holds them together, in exothermic reactions. Exothermic reactions are accompanied by the release of heat. These properties reveal carbon compounds to be ideally suited to use as fuels.
Hydrocarbons, as the name suggests, are compounds containing hydrogen and carbon. The simplest hydrocarbon is methane, consisting of four hydrogen atoms to one carbon. In this compound the four hydrogen electrons bond with the four available electrons on the carbon atom. The chemical symbol for methane is therefore CH4.
Oxidation is the combining of any element, molecule or compound, with oxygen. There is slow oxidation, such as the formation of rust on iron, and rapid oxidation, which we call burning. Oxidation is slow when a substance is exposed to oxygen over time. It does not require the application of external energy and the resulting oxidation is slow. Rapid oxidation requires the application of external energy. We know that carbon requires a large amount of energy to rapidly oxidize, i.e. burn. We also know that the burning of carbon releases large amounts of heat. As long as there is oxygen present the heat generated by the burning will burn more of the carbon until there is no longer any carbon or oxygen present. This cycle of burning not only consumes the available carbon but it liberates great amounts of heat.
We can more simply understand this process by thinking of a campfire. We gather an amount of wood, which is made of carbon, and we apply fire to it until it also begins to burn. Once it is burning it keeps burning until we stop putting wood on the fire and all the carbon in the remaining wood is oxidized. The heat liberated by burning the wood warms our nose and toes and will even cook the marshmallows we hold over it.
But back to methane. Because methane is the simplest hydrocarbon, burning methane is the simplest and cleanest method of obtaining energy from carbon. The burning of one methane molecule results in one molecule of carbon dioxide, two water molecules, and released energy. In this rapid oxidation process, under the application of heat, the two oxygen molecules, consisting of four oxygen atoms, pull the hydrogen atoms away from the carbon atom, combining to form two water molecules, released as steam, one carbon dioxide molecule, and additional heat.
The equation for this reaction is CH4 + 2 O2 = CO2 + 2 H2O + 802 megajoules of energy per mole of methane. A mole is a compound’s atomic weight expressed in grams. A mole of methane is 16 grams, 12 for the carbon and one for each of the four hydrogens. From this equation, we can determine the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2), water (H2O) and energy released by burning any amount of methane.
Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of the burning of all hydrocarbons, even methane, the simplest of hydrocarbon molecules. The burning of methane, which makes up well over 90% of what we call natural gas, creates the highest percentage of heat energy in relation to carbon dioxide formation of any hydrocarbon. More CO2 is created when larger hydrocarbon molecules are burned, in relation to the amount of heat energy liberated. This is why natural gas, which easily transported and burns purely, is the most used heat source in the average home environment. Unfortunately, there is not enough methane available for all our energy needs.
We have been aware that burning carbon-based sources liberated heat for a very long time. Thousands of years ago, primitive man used dry wood and coal stone to make fires that warmed them on cold nights and cooked their food. This energy helped them survive and hydrocarbon energy sources were widely sought out for use as fuels by the most primitive of humans. We continue to depend on carbon-based substances for fuel to this day almost exclusively, even with the development of modern, noncarbon-based energy sources.
Because there is so much carbon in the bodies of living creatures, much of it in the form of proteins, sugars and fats, many of the worlds available hydrocarbons come from organic sources. These organic compounds are made up primarily of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. As the bodies of living organisms break down and decompose after death the resulting compounds contain many hydrocarbons. After many years plant decomposition generally leads to the formation of coal deposits, and animal decomposition can lead to the creation of oil.
Methane comes from any number of carbon sources, both organic and inorganic, and is found in numerous places on earth, from our oceans and lakes to the permafrost of the Arctic and most places in between. Methane, in its form of natural gas, plus the coal and oil created from thousands of years of the decomposition of living organisms, are the 3 hydrocarbons most used as fuels in modern society.
All of these hydrocarbons, when burned, release large amounts of energy, plus CO2 and water vapor into the ecosystem. It is this release of carbon dioxide which accompanies the release of energy that concerns those who care about the overall ecological health of the planet and it’s future survival.
Why are we concerned about the chemical properties of burning hydrocarbons and why did we spend all of this chapter so far on a high school chemistry lesson? It is because the burning of hydrocarbons was largely responsible for the creation of the machines that ushered in the Industrial Age in the mid to late 18th Century CE.
The use of hydrocarbon burning machines and machines that depend on them has grown exponentially since that time until the burning of hydrocarbons has become the basis for the entire industrial output of the world. This has come about largely because the alternatives to the use of carbon fuels to create energy have either been shown to be as or more dangerous to the environment as carbon or have proven to be more costly at their current level of development. The unique combination of the large amount of power produced per volume of fuel and the cost-effectiveness of their use has made the burning of hydrocarbons the primary method of obtaining energy on the planet.
It has only been recently that alternatives such as wind and solar energy to drive turbines, tapping geothermal energy to heat and cool buildings and the use of other chemical reactions to generate power have become viable as alternatives to the use of hydrocarbons as fuel. However, as the level of investment of energy producers in methods and machines using hydrocarbons is so great, they are very reluctant to take the necessary steps to convert their facilities to technologies that have yet to be proven to deliver the same amount of energy for the same or less cost. New and emerging alternative energy businesses have difficulty finding the resources to build production plants, either from political obfuscation “fueled” by corporate lobbying or the lack of venture capital for “unproven” profit sources.
So the use of carbon-based fuels continues, even in the face of science that tells us that the carbon dioxide byproduct of the combustion of these fuels is definitively damaging the Earth and its atmosphere, possibly irreversibly. Most of the so-called science that refutes this position has been directly commissioned by the very energy producers that have such a vested interest in the continued use of hydrocarbons as fuel. They spend a great deal of money trying to convince us that we are causing no serious damage to our world by our continued use of carbon fuels. They even try to tell us there are miracle carbon fuels out there, such as clean coal, when in fact there are none.
When the industrial revolution began, steam was the motive force used to drive the engines, dynamos, and turbines that created the energy necessary to power the large metal objects that did industrial work, and to move them from place to place. The energy needed to create steam through the boiling of water was supplied by carbon-based fuels, first wood then later the more efficient coal. Later, as the internal combustion engine was developed and perfected, smaller machines that burned liquid hydrocarbons such as kerosene and the gasoline that was refined from the newly significant fuel of oil made many tasks much easier. These small machines liberated both industry and the public from work that previously took large numbers of men and animals to accomplish. They were seen as great technological advancements that would relieve mankind from the type of laborious, backbreaking work that had been the norm. They were miracles that changed life as we know it forever.
These small machines liberated both industry and the public from work that previously took large numbers of men and animals to accomplish. They were seen as great technological advancements that would relieve mankind from the type of laborious, backbreaking work that had been the norm. They were miracles that changed life as we know it forever.
Concurrently, as electrical devices grew in number and sophistication, overall electrical needs skyrocketed. Turning dynamos was how electricity was generated and the energy needed to turn those dynamos was required in greater and greater quantities. Dynamos require some type of kinetic energy to work. The rushing currents of our nation’s rivers seemed a likely source of this kinetic energy. Large dams were built to harness the power of the rushing waters, turning dynamos to generate electricity. Electricity became more plentiful causing an even greater demand for power as rural electrification became a reality and even more electrical devices were made and put into use. Hydroelectric power seemed to be the answer to America’s ever-expanding energy needs. However, it soon became apparent that the damage done to the ecosystems of our rivers by the construction of so many dams was counterproductive. It wasn’t long before it was widely accepted that further development of hydroelectric power was not possible without extensive damage to large areas of arable and otherwise useful land.
The splitting of the atom was the next source of power thought to be the answer to our energy needs. The otherworldly power of the atom could, if the reactions were controlled, provide all the power we would ever need. As scientists harnessed the means to create atomic power scores of atomic reactor power stations were built. Once again the flush of excitement over this new energy source turned to doubt and fear as our understanding of the deleterious effects of radiation on human health matured. Atomic energy had a radioactive byproduct and this waste had to be kept somewhere. Originally it was thought that these wastes could be safely sequestered away from populated areas, but research began to show that these wastes, with their extremely long life of radioactivity, posed a great threat to life wherever they were hidden. America stopped building nuclear reactors for power.
In the face of the potential damage caused by further development of hydroelectric and atomic power and in answer to ever-increasing demand America turned to coal, a fuel that was both plentiful and seemingly much more innocuous than those other energy sources. Over the last 50 years, coal has increased as a source of energy around the world. Approximately 70% of China’s energy comes from the burning of coal. Even as the world supply of easily accessible oil is diminishing there remain vast supplies of coal and natural gas.
This coal and gas was previously to costly to obtain. But new, if more damaging, methods of extraction have made them profitable for the energy companies to invest in. America, especially, has great amounts of these newly available energy sources. They have made the USA a total energy exporter rather than importer, changing our energy policy and solidifying the continued use of carbon-based energy sources.
As we have moved into the 21st century, coal and other hydrocarbons account for a predominance of the world’s energy consumption. Many still see hydrocarbons as the most cost-efficient source of energy production moving well into the future.
We have accepted the burning of newly abundant hydrocarbons as the primary means of providing power to the entire planet, both on a macro scale in our power plants and on a micro scale in our cars, trains, planes, boats, lawnmowers, snowmobiles and other small engine products. As we increase our use of hydrocarbons we increase the emissions the burning of these fuels release into the atmosphere.
Our atmosphere is largely responsible for the ability of our earth to sustain life as we know it. The delicate balance of all the factors that go into this sustenance is difficult for us mere mortals to understand. The earth is so big and the atmosphere so vast that it is hard to get our heads around just how delicately the juxtaposition of forces that can dramatically affect life are aligned. The atmosphere supports life in many ways.
First, it contains almost exactly the right proportion of gases to keep us alive. Our atmosphere contains approximately 21% oxygen. Humans require an atmosphere of at least 18% oxygen to survive. Complex interactions between plants and animals, plus atmospheric interactions of gases maintain this level of oxygen. As more oxygen is bound up in carbon dioxide from the burning of hydrocarbons and the destruction of massive areas of plant life in the Amazon jungle, our greatest source of oxygen, increases, the percentage of available oxygen in our air could decrease enough to make life uncomfortable, if not untenable, in a relatively short time.
Second, the layering of various levels of our atmosphere and their composition keep toxic atmospheric gases away from the surface. More importantly, they filter out and shield us from the more damaging frequencies of the sun’s energy emissions and guards us against the life-threatening effects of “cosmic rays”, emissions from deep space. Both of these forms of energy can radically alter human DNA, cause many cancers, and could burn us alive were we to be subjected to them over long periods of time.
Third and perhaps most important, the atmosphere keeps the surface temperature on the earth at a level that can support human life. Humans have a relatively small window of temperature in which they can thrive. Our atmosphere accomplishes maintaining this slim margin of acceptable surface heat through a complex and extremely delicate process whereby certain gases at certain levels in the atmosphere hold a certain amount of heat on the surface and allow a certain amount to escape. Through this process, the earth does not get too hot during warm periods nor too cold during cool periods. As the earth is tilted on an axis it moves closer and farther away from the sun as it revolves around it, causing the change in seasons. Without the atmosphere to temper the effects of heat and cold, life on earth would not exist. Dramatic changes to the composition of our atmosphere can affect the balance required to maintain the temperature within acceptable limits. The process is so delicate that though we see the atmosphere as vast, even small changes can have large effects.
As the earth is tilted on an axis it moves closer and farther away from the sun as it revolves around it, causing the change in seasons. Without the atmosphere to temper the effects of heat and cold, life on earth would not exist. Dramatic changes to the composition of our atmosphere can affect the balance required to maintain the temperature within acceptable limits. The process is so delicate that though we see the atmosphere as vast, even small changes can have large effects.
Even the most basic burning of hydrocarbons releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We have been burning hydrocarbons for fuel ever since the first wood fires. All living things contain carbon. Plant life has formed coal and animal life has formed oil. These are the two main forms of hydrocarbons used in energy creation today. In essence, man has been cannibalizing the lives of plants and animals, over millions of years, in just the last hundred years or so of the industrial age. Anyone with a soul can see we can’t go on like this. We must seek out other natural sources of energy such as the activity of the sun and the motion of the energy it creates, such as wind, ocean waves and biological processes, to further fuel our great need for energy. If not we will go the way of those who came before us to provide the coal and fuel we now use and life as we know it will cease to exist.
Anyone with a soul can see we can’t go on like this. We must seek out other natural sources of energy such as the activity of the sun and the motion of the energy it creates, such as wind, ocean waves and biological processes, to further fuel our great need for energy. If not we will go the way of those who came before us to provide the coal and fuel we now use and life as we know it will cease to exist.