Episode 2: Carbon's Special Knack for Bonding

Episode 2: Carbon's Special Knack for Bonding

To get to the heart of the global warming story, the very heart of it, it turns out that the scientific explanation hangs on the behavior of one very particular atom - carbon.

The more you know about carbon, the more you'll know about global warming. In five animated episodes, NPR's Robert Krulwich explains the chemistry behind this special atom. This is episode two.

What do we eat all day, wear on our ring fingers, use in our pencils and fight wars in the Middle East to protect?

Yes, that's oil. But oil is mostly carbon, and carbon has a special status: it's precious and it's everywhere. Why precious? Because life requires it. All life, from a whale to a redwood tree, down to a lady bug, to an amoeba, down to our cells, even to the components inside our cells — all of it contains carbon. Carbon, says the science writer Natalie Angier, "is the duct tape of life." It holds us together.

Carbon's special talent is that it's seriously good at making connections with other atoms. Element No. 6 on the periodic table, carbon can bond with almost every other element, forming loops, chains and planes, making it a potential skeleton for every form of life.

What's more, the bonds forged between carbon atoms are very, very strong.

While a creature lives, its atoms are energetically connected through carbon. This bond continues even when a creature dies. Take an ancient life form — a zooplankton — for example.

There used to be trillions and trillions of these jellyfish in an ancient sea where the Middle East is today. And the energy that connected their atoms way back when? Those bonds are still intact and so tight that even after millions of years, after those animals died and piled on top of each other and were squished into a goo down at the ocean floor, the energy is still locked inside, waiting to be released.

We call that goo "oil." Oil is basically liquefied ancient life. Coal is ancient life in rock form, which is why we call oil and coal "fossil fuels," because the bonds were formed a long, long time ago.

Making carbon bonds is the subject of this, the second episode of our five-part series about global warming. So to get a better understanding of carbon — especially the moody, highly energetic form imagined by our cartoonist Odd Todd, watch the video above, and see it bond before your very eyes.

And once you've seen carbon form an energetic connection, the next question is: How do we get that energy out so we can power our cars, our factories, our bodies? That's our next episode, Breaking Carbon Bonds, starring carbon, of course — and a very large carrot. Check back next week for that episode.

Want to know more? Natalie Angier's new book, The Cannon, features a wonderful chapter on chemistry that explores the talents of the carbon atom in delightful, easy prose. A sample:

Carbon is strong, resourceful, flexible, sociable. With its outer shell of four electrons and four electron slots for rent, carbon is supremely suited to molecular bondage. It happily collaborates with nearly every actor in the periodic table, save helium, neon and the four other noble elements, so-called for their snobby refusal to connect chemically to anything. Moreover, carbon is unparalleled among elements in its ability to join with itself almost indefinitely, forming carbon chains and carbon loops and branching carbon prongs and broad carbon planes and bouncing carbon buckyballs. Whatever shape you need to suit whatever cell part or enzyme you desire, chances are it is best draped on a carbon frame.

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