Earth's living organisms, including humans, are often referred to as carbon-based life forms. This means our bodies and the plants and animals around us contain carbon compounds such as sugars, starches and proteins. In addition, there are many carbon compounds in everyday use around the house, in our cars and outside. Carbon is very versatile and is part of many of the molecules that make up objects we use constantly. Add the fact that we exhale carbon dioxide, which is in the air everywhere, and it becomes obvious that carbon is a very important element for life.
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All living things contain carbon compounds, and most beings breathe out carbon dioxide, which is found in the air. Plants use carbon dioxide to create carbohydrates via photosynthesis, and animals get the carbon for their carbon compounds by eating plants or other animals. In addition to these organic compounds, carbon is found in the molecules making up rubber, plastics, gasoline, natural gas and mineral oil. Charcoal, coal and diamonds are mainly carbon. Carbon uses in everyday life include burning carbon compounds for heat or energy and eating foods containing carbon in the form of carbohydrates.
Examples of Carbon Molecules That Make up Organic Compounds
Organic compounds contain long chains of carbon atoms that bond with hydrogen and oxygen to form carbohydrates. These carbon compounds are produced by plants via photosynthesis, using water, sunlight and carbon dioxide from the air. Typical organic compounds found in plants are sugars, starches and oils. Humans and other animals get their organic carbon by eating plants or other animals. Humans get sugar from fruits such as apples and oranges, starch from vegetables such as potatoes and rice and oils from corn or peanuts. When we eat meat we're eating organic compounds that include proteins and fats. While we eat a few inorganic substances such as salt and the water we drink does not have carbon in it, most of our food comes from plants and animals and contains carbon molecules.
Other Carbon Compounds in Everyday Use
While carbon dioxide and food containing organic compounds are common, other products containing carbon illustrate the importance of carbon in our daily life. Products such as rubber and plastics contain carbon because they are made from refined petroleum. Mineral oil is made up of hydrocarbons and contains mainly hydrogen and carbon. The same is true for gasoline and natural gas, and we burn hydrocarbons to produce carbon dioxide when we drive anywhere or heat a space with petroleum products.
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Other products are almost pure carbon. For example coal and charcoal are made up of carbon as are the diamonds used in jewelery or as an industrial abrasive. Graphite is pure carbon, and pencil lead gets its black color from carbon. Some cleaning products such as carbon tetrachloride contain carbon, and the steel used in many products contains iron and carbon. Between breathing out carbon dioxide, eating foods that contain carbon molecules, using products containing carbon and burning carbon compounds for transportation and heat, you can see that carbon and carbon molecules truly play an important role in everyday life.