By S Paul
We have been hearing about the word ‘Carbon’ being discussed the world over very often these days because it seems to appear everywhere around us. Carbon exists freely in nature in gaseous, liquid and solid forms and is known as the ‘King of Elements’. Not Gold or Platinum. Carbon is found in the sun and other stars, formed from the debris of a previous supernova. It is built up by nuclear fusion in bigger stars. It is present in the atmospheres of many planets, usually as carbon dioxide. Carbon makes up only 0.032 percent of the Earth’s lithosphere (crust and outer mantle) by weight but yet it impacts our lives very significantly. Naturally occurring atmospheric carbon dioxide i.e. 250 ppm and less allows sun light to reach us but prevents infrared from escaping (causing greenhouse effect). This keeps the Earth warm enough to sustain life. Even 150 years ago, the natural concentration of carbon dioxide gas in the Earth’s atmosphere was 280 ppm (part per million). In 2020, as a result of our combusting fossil fuels and many other means of emissions; also by denuding of green cover, this has increased to more than 400 ppm. Because of this, a severely enhanced greenhouse effect is being created. This is affecting life on the planet adversely. The menace of atmospheric pollution, as such, is a topic of great concern regarding the environment of the world today. And among other pollutants Carbon is held to be most responsible.
We have discovered that the Carbon emission from our industries, traffic, burning of vegetation (including that of crop stubble), even our breathing and flatulence, lighting of fireworks, our coal fired power houses, our furnaces, garbage heaps and nuclear waste (mostly radioactive graphite) have become dangerous to our health and a grave cause of concern for environmental degradation This has prompted the world to act for immediate reduction of ‘CARBON FOOTPRINTS’, specifically by industrialised nations. A carbon footprint corresponds to the whole amount of greenhouse gases produced, directly and indirectly; to support a person’s lifestyle and activities. Carbon footprints are usually measured in equivalent tons of CO2 during the period of a year. The Paris Agreement reached on 12 December 2015 brings all nations together for the common cause of making assured efforts to combat this climate change with increased support from developed nations to developing countries to achieve this.
How to go about achieving it? Many scientific researches are being done to find out alternatives to the use of Carbon-based fuels. I have already written in my article, GP dated 13 July 2020 ‘BHANURJA’, a Startup Concept, & GP dated 7 Oct, 2020, ‘RAINCLOUDS, THE GREAT SOURCE OF ENERGY’, that we can do away with all coal and petroleum-based systems in our energy generation efforts and replace them with clean-free- inexhaustible means based on all that is there provided by our SUN, the largest source of free energy in this solar system. It would free us extensively of our problem of carbon-based pollutions, too.
However, contrary to the menace of Carbon are the very revolutionary uses of purified and modified Carbon. There are a number of pure forms of this element namely Graphite, Fullerene, Graphene and Diamond available to us. Graphite is black and shiny but soft. Fullerene and Graphene appear as black or dark brown, soot-like powders; Diamond is a colourless, transparent, crystalline solid and the hardest known material. All these are being put to human use sans the polluting effects. Some are given below:
Impure carbon in the form of charcoal (from wood) and coke (from coal) is used in metal smelting, particularly in the iron and steel industries. A small but important quantity is used for the petrochemical industries for producing polymers, fibers, paints, solvents and plastics, etc. There are now carbon impregnated sheets/fabrics that are light and proof against many types of ballistics weapons (Armour protection). Graphite is used in pencils, to make brushes in electric motors and in furnace linings. Activated charcoal is used for purification and filtration. Carbon filament is finding many uses as a very strong, yet lightweight, material. It is currently used in tennis rackets, ski gear, fishing rods and even in reinforcing rockets and aeroplanes. Recent discovery of carbon nanotubes, other fullerenes and atom-thin sheets of graphene has revolutionised hardware developments in the electronics industry and in nano (that is one billionth of a unit in metric system of measurement) technology. Synthetic Diamonds, called Industrial diamonds, are made by subjecting purified Carbon (mixed with diamond dust obtained while mining or cutting diamond) and subjecting it to high Pressure of about 7,25,000 Kg per sq. cm. and high temperature of 1200 degree Celsius. These are used for cutting rocks and drilling. Successful research has been done to trap carbon particles in our atmosphere and then converting this powder to various useful purposes.
In its biological role, Carbon is essential to life. It was thought to contain a ‘spark of life’ and naturally existing only in living beings. But then researchers found that Carbon does exist in nature as compounded with Oxygen, Nitrogen and Hydrogen. Thus Hydrocarbons were discovered. Living beings get almost all their carbon from carbon dioxide, either from the atmosphere or dissolved in water. Photosynthesis by green plants and photosynthetic plankton uses energy from the sun to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. The oxygen is released to the atmosphere, fresh water and seas, and the hydrogen joins with carbon dioxide to produce carbohydrates. Some of the carbohydrates are used, along with nitrogen, phosphorus and other elements, to form the other essential molecules of life. These include bases and sugars for RNA and DNA, and amino acids for proteins. Also, living beings that do not photosynthesise have to rely on consuming other living beings for their source of carbon molecules; their digestive systems breakdown carbohydrates that they can use to build their own cellular structures. Respiration provides the energy needed for these reactions. In respiration, oxygen rejoins carbohydrates, to form carbon dioxide and water again. The energy released in this reaction is made available for the cells.
But now a very revolutionary discovery has been made, called Nano Diamond Battery. A California-based company has made a self-charging battery by trapping radioactive Graphite (C14) from nuclear waste in artificial diamond-case. The company claims that this battery can run for 28,000 years on a single charge.
The US-based company says that the battery can be used in electric vehicles, mobile phones, laptops, tablets, drones, watches, cameras, health monitors and even sensors. It is also said to be extremely safe and tamper proof as it is coated with non-radioactive diamond which prevents radiation leaks. The battery works by generating electricity on its own from a shower of electrons as result of radioactive decay scattered and deposited in the artificial diamond-case. The battery is now also to power the electrical needs of spacecraft. The company wants to further purify the nuclear waste to make the battery even more powerful and use it to make computer chips and nano devices. The researchers estimate that, at present, 34 million cubic metres of global nuclear waste is costing over $100 billion to manage and dispose. And a lot of this waste is graphite that is one of the higher risk radioactive waste and one of the most expensive and problematic waste to store. (There have been many science fiction movies made on leaked radioactivity from its dump in oceans like ‘Godzilla series’, ‘King-Kong series’ , ‘Rampage’, etc.).The company says its battery can be used to power houses, and that any excess electricity generated can be sold to the grid. And, as the new battery need not be replaced, it can be installed in hard-to-reach places like pacemakers and implants, where regular change of battery is not possible.
Therefore, Carbon just cannot be got rid of but utilised most beneficially in its pure forms. In its purest form, the Diamonds are forever’. So, cheer up folks, we can still save our planet and ourselves!