CARBON What is Driving the Strategy to Demonize the Most Amazing, Life Sustaining Element? Chapter 1
Robert D. Brinsmead
For some years now, the public has been bombarded with a lot of negative press about carbon and carbon dioxide. Talk about “carbon pollution,” “carbon emissions,” “carbon footprint,” “de-carbonizing the economy,” “greenhouse gas emissions,” and “reducing emissions” has been so negatively loaded and repetitious that carbon is now widely regarded as some dirty black pollutant that should be shunned and banished from the environment. It is as if the language of the public discourse has been deliberately manipulated to demonize carbon.
Changing public perceptions by the manipulation of language is exactly what George Orwell warned us about some years ago. The negative sloganeering to demonize carbon emissions is like that famous scene in Orwell’s Animal Farm where the pigs teach all the other animals to keep chanting “Four legs good, two legs bad.”
It has been said that a big lie will go seven times around the world before the truth can get its boots on.
It’s time for the truth about carbon to get its boots on.
Basic Facts About Carbon
There are 118 elements listed in the Periodic Table. Carbon is listed as number 6 with the letter C.
Carbon is the 4th most common element in the Universe, following hydrogen, helium and oxygen. It is also the 15th most abundant element in the earth’s crust.
When elements are chemically bonded together they are called compounds. There happens to be about 10 million carbon compounds – more than all other compounds combined.
There are three reasons for this:
In the first place, carbon exists in different forms which are called allotropes of carbon. As an example, diamonds are an allotrope of pure carbon. Diamonds are transparent and the hardest of all natural substances. On the other hand, graphite is also another allotrope of pure carbon, but it is opaque and one of softest of all natural substances.
In the second place, the carbon atom has 15 different neutron formations called isotopes (8C-22C). Consequently, there are 15 isotopes of carbon, the most common of which are identified as 12C, 13C and 14C.
In the third place, the electrons of the carbon atom have some unique “hook up” features which enable it to more easily bond with other elements in a diversity of ways.
All of these unique features of carbon add up to making it the most amazingly versatile, adaptive and bondable element of the Periodic Table. This is why carbon compounds are the most numerous, making carbon chemistry by far the largest field of chemistry. It is the reason why most new alloys, fibres and polymers used in thousands of products are made by finding new ways of bonding carbon with other elements.
A great leap forward for mankind occurred in 19thCentury Great Britain when it was discovered how to make an alloy called steel by bonding carbon with iron in a coal-fired blast furnace. That discovery launched the world into a new age of using steel to construct rail tracks, bridges, ships, fortified concrete structures, motor vehicles and lots more. New carbon-based products started as a trickle but by now have become an avalanche of new alloys, fibres and polymers. Carbon is now used to make specialized kinds of insulators, conductors and semi-conductors – a feat that uses carbon to do very opposite things or even both things together.
Without carbon technology there would be no modern transport industry, or construction industry, electrical industry, communications industry or space industry. Just about every new man-made product – from the heat shields on the NASA spacecraft that is now exploring the sun to the tennis racquets we give our kids for Christmas – are made with new carbon materials.
Given carbon’s amazing versatility, will we ever run out of new ways to bond carbon to the other 117 elements? That is like asking if we will ever run out new ways of using the 26 letters of the alphabet to make new books.
Life itself is carbon-based.
As we have seen, Homo sapiens (“the wise ones”) have learned how to use carbon in so many ways to make so many things. That is an impressive feat, but it cannot match the far greater feat of using carbon to make life. All life as we know it is carbon-based. Any good text-book on biology will tell us that. All living things, whether they are plants or animals, humans or micro-organisms, have one thing in common: everything that lives is made of carbon.
It is estimated that there are at least 39 trillion cells in the human body. Whether they are blood cells, bone cells, nerve cells, skin cells or brain cells, like the cells of all other living things, they are all made of carbon-based compounds. The human body is about 20% carbon. Aside from oxygen, it is the most common element in the human body, and for that matter, it is also the most common element in every other form of life.
Whether it is the spectacle of giant whales sporting in the ocean, bees harvesting pollen from blossoming trees, children screeching with laughter in the playground, birds calling each other to mate or hunt for food, our little Blue Planet is the only place that we know about in this big wide universe that puts on this astonishing display of living, working, playing, singing, dancing, even thinking and loving carbon organisms.
Knowing something about the origin of carbon adds a beautiful touch to this mystery of life. According to physical cosmology theory, carbon was formed by the stupendous heat of supernovae. That is the name given to the disintegration of a giant star. While the heat energy of our sun is powerful enough to convert (fuse) hydrogen into helium, it required far more energy than this to turn the gases of a giant star into carbon. When a massive star died, its carbon dust was scattered through the universe to eventually become the stuff from which life was made. As the celebrated scientist Carl Sagan used to say, “We are made from star dust.” If we can celebrate life, why not also celebrate the stuff upon which all life is based?
Carbon sustains all life
Every form of life – plant life, animal life or microscopic life – is not only made of carbon, but it has to grow and be sustained by ingesting carbon. There are no exceptions. Every carbon-based organism must feed on carbon - or die.
The animal kingdom gets this carbon from plant food. Even the meat-eating animals called carnivores are just as dependant on plant food as the herbivores because they eat the animals which eat the plants. No plant food means no animal food, and of course, no human food.
Food is composed of carbohydrates, proteins and fats (plus minerals, vitamins and other micro-nutrients). These three food groups are all carbon-based, although as even the name indicates, carbohydrates contain the most concentrated source of carbon – sugars (e.g. sucrose, glucose, galactose, lactose, fructose, mannose, etc.), starches and fibres. Fats are hydrocarbons and protein contains carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen. So the whole food chain (or the food pyramid as some call it) is a carbon-based fuel that has been designed to sustain a carbon-based organism.
By now, any escape from this ubiquitous, demonized stuff called carbon should at least be starting to look like a mad hatter’s dream. But just to ratchet up the difficulty of engaging in ridiculous stunts to reduce our carbon footprint or de-carbonize our way of life, let us pause to reflect that we not only eat this so-called pollutant for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but every morning we get out of a bed that’s made of the stuff, in a house that’s made of the stuff, full of furniture, fittings and gadgets that’s made of the stuff. And if it is not enough to recognize that our bodies are full of the stuff and that we must eat the stuff, we need to also recognize that we even dress ourselves in the stuff. The clothing we put on, whether made of natural fibres or synthetic fibres, is all made of some kind of carbon fibre. Carbon is involved in every aspect of human existence.
Carbon sustains all plant life.
Plants too have to be sustained by carbon like everything else that lives on earth. They cannot absorb carbon through their root systems, however, no matter how much carbon there may be in the soil. While the roots of a plant take up water, nitrogen and a relatively tiny amount of essential minerals, it is the leaves of the plant which have tiny stomata which open to absorb carbon dioxide from the air. By using sunlight in a process which is called photosynthesis, the plant absorbs the carbon and breathes out the oxygen, then synthesises that carbon with the water and minerals taken up by the roots to make carbohydrates, proteins and fats for all creatures great and small. This carbon which is absorbed from the air in the form of carbon dioxide provides more than 90% of a plant’s nutritional needs.
The food we eat is for the most part processed carbon dioxide. It would be hard to think of a greater irony than having the stuff we have demonized ending up on our tables as delicious steaks, mangoes, avocados and all manner of delicious deserts and treats. Not a bit of food, whether that is good food or junk food, could end up on tables unless there were first some carbon dioxide emissions to feed the plants which feed us. Every day the atmosphere needs to be replenished with billions of tons of carbon dioxide to nourish the plants, otherwise we would all starve.
The irony of having to eat the very stuff we demonize as a pollutant is a reminder of this piece of good advice: “Let your words be ever soft and sweet because the time may come when you might have to eat them.”
Where do all the carbon dioxide emissions come from?
All the rotting vegetation returns to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. All breathing creatures on land and in the sea (and that includes most micro-organisms whose biomass is far greater than all the visible creatures) give off carbon dioxide or methane (CH4) – except that cyanobacteria exhale oxygen. Humans too give off carbon dioxide not only as they breathe, but in all their industrial and other activity wherein we burn hydrocarbons such as coal, oil or gas for energy. Active volcanoes also give off carbon dioxide emissions. In the early beginnings of earth, there was enormous volcanic activity. This was the atmosphere’s original source of carbon dioxide. There are still more than 3 million volcanoes under the oceans, and it is not yet known how many of these are active at any one time.
The world’s oceans, lakes and rivers, which make up 71% of the earth’s surface, store about 50 times more carbon dioxide in them than is stored in the atmosphere. An exchange of carbon called the carbon cycle is constantly taking place. All plants on the earth and in ocean, lakes and rivers ( the greatest biomass of these are microscopic plants like fungi and algae) take up carbon dioxide and give off oxygen as a waste product, and all the living creatures on earth and in the sea take up oxygen and give off the carbon dioxide as their waste product. For all plants great and small, carbon dioxide is the gas of life, and for all creatures great and small, oxygen is the gas of life. The carbon cycle is driven by the simple principle of giving and receiving: all living creatures give off carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere to feed the plants, and the plants turn this into carbon-based food to feed the creatures.
It is therefore no more correct to call carbon dioxide a pollutant than it is to call oxygen a pollutant. Carbon dioxide is a natural, odourless, invisible, non-toxic plant food. It is just as essential to life as oxygen and water.
All human carbon dioxide emissions, including all the emissions which come from burning fossil fuel, amount to about 3% of all carbon dioxide emissions going into the atmosphere. The oceans, lakes and rivers, which make up what is called the hydrosphere, produce at least 10 more carbon dioxide emissions than is produced by all human activity. With 50 times more carbon dioxide in the hydrosphere than in the atmosphere, the oceans are like a great body of carbonated water that are constantly exhaling and inhaling carbon dioxide. As they warm, they exhale more of it just as a warm carbonated drink de-fizzes more quickly. As they cool, the oceans absorb more carbon dioxide. No one calls the carbon dioxide emissions from the oceans a pollutant and any suggestion to reduce these oceanic emissions would rightly be seen as ridiculous.
The soil of the earth, which is called the lithosphere, produces even more carbon emissions than the oceans. Most of this carbon dioxide comes from rotting vegetation, termites and micro-organisms which make up the biggest part of the biomass. Some of it comes from creatures exhaling, and some comes from volcanic eruptions.
There is currently about 3,200 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Since there is one ton of carbon to every 3.67 tons of carbon dioxide, there are about 870 billion tons of carbon in the world’s atmosphere.
This may sound like a lot of carbon dioxide, but it is actually only a very tiny 0.04% or 400 parts per million (ppm) of the atmosphere. This is just one molecule of carbon dioxide in every 2,500 molecules of air. Given that the air we breathe is 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 0.9% argon and 0.25% water vapour, carbon dioxide, taking up only 0.04%, is a miniscule amount. Yet no life could exist without it because carbon dioxide is the primary source of plant food.