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Carbon Allotropes

by siebo last modified April 20, 2007 - 11:54

The allotropes of carbon are the different molecular configurations (allotropes) that pure carbon can take.

Eight Allotropes of CarbonFollowing is a list of the allotropes of carbon, ordered by notability, and extent of industrial use.


Main article: Diamond

Diamond is one of the best known allotropes of carbon, whose hardness and high dispersion of light make it useful for industrial applications and jewelry. Diamond is the hardest known natural mineral, making it an excellent abrasive and also means a diamond holds its polish extremely well and retains luster.

The market for industrial-grade diamonds operates much differently from its gem-grade counterpart. Industrial diamonds are valued mostly for their hardness and heat conductivity, making many of the gemological characteristics of diamond, including clarity and color, mostly irrelevant. This helps explain why 80% of mined diamonds (equal to about 100 million carats or 20,000 kg annually), unsuitable for use as gemstones and known as bort, are destined for industrial use. In addition to mined diamonds, synthetic diamonds found industrial applications almost immediately after their invention in the 1950s; another 400 million carats (80,000 kg) of synthetic diamonds are produced annually for industrial use—nearly four times the mass of natural diamonds mined over the same period.

The dominant industrial use of diamond is in cutting, drilling, grinding, and polishing. Most uses of diamonds in these technologies do not require large diamonds; in fact, most diamonds that are gem-quality except for their small size, can find an industrial use. Diamonds are embedded in drill tips or saw blades, or ground into a powder for use in grinding and polishing applications. Specialized applications include use in laboratories as containment for high pressure experiments (see diamond anvil), high-performance bearings, and limited use in specialized windows.

With the continuing advances being made in the production of synthetic diamond, future applications are beginning to become feasible. Garnering much excitement is the possible use of diamond as a semiconductor suitable to build microchips from, or the use of diamond as a heat sink in electronics. Significant research efforts in Japan, Europe, and the United States are under way to capitalize on the potential offered by diamond's unique material properties, combined with increased quality and quantity of supply starting to become available from synthetic diamond manufacturers.

Each carbon atom in diamond is covalently bonded to four other carbons in a tetrahedron. These tetrahedrons together form a 3-dimensional network of puckered six-membered rings of atoms. This stable network of covalent bonds and the three dimensional arrangement of bonds that diamond is so strong.


Main article: Graphite

Graphite (named by Abraham Gottlob Werner in 1789, from the Greek γραφειν: "to draw/write", for its use in pencils) is one of the most common allotropes of carbon. Unlike diamond, graphite is a conductor, and can be used, for instance, as the material in the electrodes of an electrical arc lamp. Graphite holds the distinction of being the most stable form of solid carbon ever discovered.

Graphite is able to conduct electricity due to the unpaired fourth electron in each carbon atom. This unpaired 4th electron forms delocalised planes above and below the planes of the carbon atoms. These electrons are free to move, so are able to conduct electricity. However, the electricity is only conducted within the plane of the layers.

Graphite powder is used as a dry lubricant. Although it might be thought that this industrially important property is due entirely to the loose interlamellar coupling between sheets in the structure, in fact in a vacuum environment (such as in technologies for use in space), graphite was found to be a very poor lubricant. This fact lead to the discovery that graphite's lubricity is due to adsorbed air and water between the layers, unlike other layered dry lubricants such as molybdenum disulfide. Recent studies suggest that an effect called superlubricity can also account for this effect.

When a large number of crystallographic defects bind these planes together, graphite loses its lubrication properties and becomes what is known as pyrolytic carbon, a useful material in blood-contacting implants such as prosthetic heart valves.

Natural and crystalline graphites are not often used in pure form as structural materials due to their shear-planes, brittleness and inconsistent mechanical properties.

In its pure glassy (isotropic) synthetic forms, pyrolytic graphite and carbon fiber graphite is an extremely strong, heat-resistant (to 3000 °C) material, used in reentry shields for missile nosecones, solid rocket engines, high temperature reactors, brake shoes and electric motor brushes.

Intumescent or expandable graphites are used in fire seals, fitted around the perimeter of a fire door. During a fire the graphite intumesces (expands and chars) to resist fire penetration and prevent the spread of fumes. A typical start expansion temperature (SET) is between 150 and 300 degrees Celsius.

Amorphous carbon

Main article: Amorphous carbon

Amorphous carbon is the name used for carbon that does not have any crystalline structure. As with all glassy materials, some short-range order can be observed, but there is no long-range pattern of atomic positions.

While entirely amorphous carbon can be made, most of the material described as "amorphous" actually contains crystallites of graphite [1] or diamond [2] with varying amounts of amorphous carbon holding them together, making them technically polycrystalline or nanocrystalline materials. Commercial carbon also usually contains significant quantities of other elements, which may form crystalline impurities.

Coal and soot are both informally called amorphous carbon. However, both are products of pyrolysis, which does not produce true amorphous carbon under normal conditions. The coal industry divides coal up into various grades depending on the amount of carbon present in the sample compared to the amount of impurities. The highest grade, anthracite, is about 90 percent carbon and 10% other elements. Bituminous coal is about 75-90 percent carbon, and lignite is the name for coal that is around 55 percent carbon.


Main article: Fullerene

The fullerenes are recently-discovered allotropes of carbon named after the scientist and architect Richard Buckminster Fuller, but were discovered in 1985 by a team of scientists from Rice University and the University of Sussex, three of whom were awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. They are molecules composed entirely of carbon, which take the form of a hollow sphere, ellipsoid, or tube. Spherical fullerenes are sometimes called buckyballs, while cylindrical fullerenes are called buckytubes or nanotubes.

As of the early twenty-first century, the chemical and physical properties of fullerenes are still under heavy study, in both pure and applied research labs. In April 2003, fullerenes were under study for potential medicinal use — binding specific antibiotics to the structure to target resistant bacteria and even target certain cancer cells such as melanoma.

Fullerenes are similar in structure to graphite, which is composed of a sheet of linked hexagonal rings, but they contain pentagonal (or sometimes heptagonal) rings that prevent the sheet from being planar.

Carbon nanotubes

Main article: Carbon nanotube

Carbon nanotubes are cylindrical carbon molecules with novel properties that make them potentially useful in a wide variety of applications (e.g., nano-electronics, optics, materials applications, etc.). They exhibit extraordinary strength and unique electrical properties, and are efficient conductors of heat. Inorganic nanotubes have also been synthesized.

A nanotube (also known as a buckytube) is a member of the fullerene structural family, which also includes buckyballs. Whereas buckyballs are spherical in shape, a nanotube is cylindrical, with at least one end typically capped with a hemisphere of the buckyball structure. Their name is derived from their size, since the diameter of a nanotube is on the order of a few nanometers (approximately 50,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair), while they can be up to several centimeters in length. There are two main types of nanotubes: single-walled nanotubes (SWNTs) and multi-walled nanotubes (MWNTs).

Aggregated diamond nanorods

Main article: Aggregated diamond nanorods

Aggregated diamond nanorods, or ADNRs, are an allotrope of carbon believed to be the least compressible material known to humankind, as measured by its isothermal bulk modulus; aggregated diamond nanorods have a modulus of 491 gigapascals (GPa), while a conventional diamond has a modulus of 442 GPa. ADNRs are also 0.3% denser than regular diamond. The ADNR material is also harder than type IIa diamond and ultrahard fullerite.

Glassy carbon

Main article: Glassy carbon

Glassy carbon is a class of non-graphitizing carbon which is widely used as an electrode material in electrochemistry, as well as for high temperature crucibles and as a component of some prosthetic devices. It was first produced by workers at the laboratories of The General Electric Company, UK, in the early 1960s, using cellulose as the starting material. A short time later, Japanese workers produced a similar material from phenolic resin. The preparation of glassy carbon involves subjecting the organic precursors to a series of heat treatments at temperatures up to 3000oC. Unlike many non-graphitizing carbons, they are impermeable to gases and are chemically extremely inert, especially those which have been prepared at very high temperatures. It has been demonstrated that the rates of oxidation of certain glassy carbons in oxygen, carbon dioxide or water vapour are lower than those of any other carbon. They are also highly resistant to attack by acids. Thus, while normal graphite is reduced to a powder by a mixture of concentrated sulphuric and nitric acids at room temperature, glassy carbon is unaffected by such treatment, even after several months.

Carbon nanofoam

Main article: Carbon nanofoam

Carbon nanofoam is the fifth known allotrope of carbon discovered in 1997 by Andrei V. Rode and co-workers at the Australian National University in Canberra. It consists of a low-density cluster-assembly of carbon atoms strung together in a loose three-dimensional web.

Each cluster is about 6 nanometers wide and consists of about 4000 carbon atoms linked in graphite-like sheets that are given negative curvature by the inclusion of heptagons among the regular hexagonal pattern. This is the opposite of what happens in the case of buckminsterfullerenes, in which carbon sheets are given positive curvature by the inclusion of pentagons.

The large-scale structure of carbon nanofoam is similar to that of an aerogel, but with 1% of the density of previously produced carbon aerogels - only a few times the density of air at sea level. Unlike carbon aerogels, carbon nanofoam is a poor electrical conductor.


Main article: Lonsdaleite

Lonsdaleite is a hexagonal allotrope of the carbon allotrope diamond, believed to form when meteoric graphite falls to Earth. The great heat and stress of the impact transforms the graphite into diamond, but retains graphite's hexagonal crystal lattice.

Lonsdaleite was first identified from the Canyon Diablo meteorite at Barringer Crater (also known as Meteor Crater) in Arizona. It was first discovered in 1967. Lonsdaleite occurs as microscopic crystals associated with diamond in the Canyon Diablo meteorite; Kenna meteorite, New Mexico; and Allan Hills (ALH) 77283, Victoria Land, Antarctica meteorite. It has also been reported from the Tunguska impact site, Russia.


Main article: Chaoite

Chaoite is a mineral believed to have been formed in meteorite impacts. It has been described as slightly harder than graphite with a reflection colour of grey to white. However, the existence of carbyne phases is disputed – see the entry on chaoite for details.

Variability of carbon

The system of carbon allotropes spans an astounding range of extremes, considering that they are all merely structural formations of the same element.

Between diamond and graphite

  • Diamond is hardest mineral known to man (10 on Mohs scale), but graphite is one of the softest (1 - 2 on Mohs scale).
  • Diamond is the ultimate abrasive, but graphite is a very good lubricant.
  • Diamond is an excellent electrical insulator, but graphite is a conductor of electricity.
  • Diamond is usually transparent, but graphite is opaque.
  • Diamond crystallizes in the isometric system but graphite crystallizes in the hexagonal system.

Between amorphous carbon and nanotubes

  • Amorphous carbon is among the easiest materials to synthesize, but carbon nanotubes are extremely expensive to make.
  • Amorphous carbon is completely isotropic, but carbon nanotubes are among the most anisotropic materials ever produced.