This section is from "Scientific American Supplement Volumes 275, 286, 288, 299, 303, 312, 315, 324, 344 and 358". Also available from Amazon: Scientific American Reference Book.
By T.A. POOLEY, B.Sc., F.C.S.
This element, which next deserves our attention, is one of great importance and wide distribution; it occurs in nature in both the free and the combined states, and the number of compounds which it forms with other elements is very large. Unlike the previous elementary bodies we have studied, carbon is only known to us in the solid form when free, although many of its combinations are gaseous at the ordinary temperature and pressure. Carbon is known to exist in several different physical states, thus illustrating what chemists call allotropism, which means that substances of identical chemical composition sometimes possess altogether different outward and physical appearances. Thus the three states in which pure carbon exists, viz., diamond, graphite, or plumbago, and charcoal are as different as possible, and yet chemically they are all exactly the same substance. The diamond is the purest carbon, and occurs in the crystalline form known as a regular octahedron; the diamond is one of the hardest substances known, and is therefore, utilized for cutting glass; it has also a very high specific gravity, namely, 3.5, which means that it is three and a half times heavier than water, and it is far heavier than any of the other allotropic modifications of carbon. Graphite or plumbago, the second form in which carbon occurs, is widely distributed in nature, and the finer qualities are known as black lead, although no lead enters into their composition, as they are composed of carbon almost as pure as the diamond; the specific gravity of graphite is only 2.3. Charcoal, the third allotropic modification of carbon, is by far the most common, and is formed by the natural or artificial disintegration of organic matters by heat; we thus have formed wood charcoal, animal charcoal, lamp-black, and coke, all produced by artificial means, and we may also class with these coal, which is a natural product, and which contains from 85 to 95 per cent. of pure carbon.
Wood charcoal is made by heating wood in closed vessels or in large masses, when all the hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen are expelled in the gaseous state, and the carbon is left mixed with the mineral constituents of the wood; this form of carbon is very porous and light, and is used in a number of industrial processes.
Animal charcoal, as its name implies, is the carbonaceous residue left on heating any animal matters in a retort; and contains, in addition to the carbon, a large proportion of phosphates and other mineral salts, which, however, can be extracted by dilute acids. Animal charcoal possesses to a remarkable degree the property of removing color from solutions of animal and vegetable substances, and it is used for this purpose to a large extent by sugar refiners, who thus decolorize their dark brown sirups; in the manufacture of glucose and saccharums for brewers' use, the concentrated solutions have to be filtered through layers of animal charcoal in order that the resulting product may be freed from color. The decolorizing power of animal charcoal can be easily tested by any brewer, by causing a little dark colored wort to filter through a layer of this material; after passing through once or twice, the color will entirely disappear, or at all events be greatly reduced in intensity. Animal charcoal also absorbs gases with great avidity, and on this account it is utilized as a powerful disinfectant, for when once putrefactive gases are absorbed by it, they undergo a gradual oxidation, and are rendered innocuous, in the same way animal charcoal is a valuable agent for purifying water, for by filtering the most impure water through a bed of animal charcoal nearly the whole of the organic impurities will be completely removed.
Lamp-black is the name given to those varieties of carbon which are deposited when hydrocarbons are burned with an insufficient supply of oxygen; thus the smoke and soot emitted into our atmosphere from our furnaces and fireplaces are composed of comparatively pure carbon.
Coal is an impure form of carbon derived from the gradual oxidation and destruction of vegetable matters by natural causes; thus wood first changes into a peaty substance, and subsequently into a body called lignite, which again in its turn becomes converted into the different varieties of coal; these changes, which have resulted in the accumulation of vast beds of coal in the crust of the earth, have been going on for ages. There are very many different kinds of coal; some are rich in hydrogen, and are therefore well adapted for making illuminating gas, while others, such as anthracite, are very rich in carbon, and contain but little hydrogen; the last named variety of coal is smokeless, and is therefore largely used for drying malt.
Carbon occurs in nature also in a combined state; limestone, chalk, and marble contain 12 per cent. of this element. It is also present in the atmosphere in the form of carbonic acid, and the same compound of carbon is present in well and river waters, both in the free state and combined with lime and magnesia. All animal and vegetable organisms contain a large proportion of carbon as an essential constituent; albumen contains about 53 per cent., alcohol contains 52 per cent., starch 44 per cent., cane sugar 42 per cent., and so on. The presence of carbon in the large class of bodies known to chemists as carbohydrates, of which starch and sugar are prominent examples, can be easily demonstrated. If a little strong sulphuric acid be added to some powdered cane sugar in a glass, the mass will soon begin to darken in color and swell up, and in the course of a few minutes a mass of black porous carbon will separate, which can be purified from the acid by repeated washings; the sugar is composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, the two last-named elements being present in the exact proportion necessary to form water; the sulphuric acid having a strong affinity for water, removes the hydrogen and oxygen, and the carbon is then left in a free state.
Carbon forms two compounds with oxygen--carbon monoxide, commonly called carbonic oxide, and carbon dioxide, commonly called carbonic acid; and the last-named, being of most importance, will be studied first.