And it uses them: Nearly 10 million carbon compounds have been discovered, and scientists estimate that carbon is the keystone for 95 percent of known compounds, according to the website Chemistry Explained.
Carbon's incredible ability to bond with many other elements is a major reason that it is crucial to almost all life. The element was known to prehistoric humans in the form of charcoal.
The research team named their discovery the buckminsterfullerene after an architect who designed geodesic domes.The molecule is now more commonly known as the "buckyball." The researchers who discovered it won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996.[See Periodic Table of the Elements] Carbon occurs naturally as carbon-12, which makes up almost 99 percent of the carbon in the universe; carbon-13, which makes up about 1 percent; and carbon-14, which makes up a minuscule amount of overall carbon but is very important in dating organic objects.As the sixth-most abundant element in the universe, carbon forms in the belly of stars in a reaction called the triple-alpha process, according to the Swinburne Center for Astrophysics and Supercomputing.A 2010 paper in the journal Nano Letters reports the invention of flexible, conductive textiles dipped in a carbon nanotube "ink" that could be used to store energy, perhaps paving the way for wearable batteries, solar cells and other electronics.
Perhaps one of the hottest areas in carbon research today, however, involves the "miracle material" graphene. It's the strongest material known while still being ultralight and flexible. Mass-producing graphene is a challenge, though researchers in April 2014 reported that they could make large amounts using nothing but a kitchen blender.Carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,730 years, meaning that after that time, half of the carbon-14 in a sample decays away, according to the University of Arizona.Because organisms stop taking in carbon-14 after death, scientists can use carbon-14's half-life as a sort of clock to measure how long it has been since the organism died.Buckyballs have been found to inhibit the spread of HIV, according to a study published in 2009 in the Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling; medical researchers are working to attach drugs, molecule-by-molecule, to buckyballs in order to deliver medicine directly to sites of infection or tumors in the body; this includes research by Columbia University, Rice University and others.Since then, other new, pure carbon molecules — called fullerenes — have been discovered, including elliptical-shaped "buckyeggs" and carbon nanotubes with amazing conductive properties.Plants take it up in respiration, in which they convert sugars made during photosynthesis back into energy that they use to grow and maintain other processes, according to Colorado State University.