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Carbon vs. Carbon Dioxide

Some elements of the periodic table can be very fickle sometimes. Take number six, carbon, as an excellent example. When one atom of carbon is bonded with two atoms of oxygen it becomes carbon dioxide, the primary cause of global warming. However when carbon atoms are bonded to other carbon atoms and rolled up into microscopic tubes, they could actually be used to help fight global warming.

Carbon nanotubes are long thin molecules of pure carbon that exhibit some rather remarkable properties. Each atom of carbon in the tube is bonded to three others in a sort of rolled up honeycomb pattern. This makes the tubes very strong but still very lightweight, perfect for strengthening buildings using less material.

One out of this world idea is to use nanotubes to build a proposed "Space Elevator." Scientists have suggested it could be possible to drop a cable of nanotubes from a geostationary satellite in orbit, and run an elevator between it and the surface of Earth. If built, pollution spewing rocket launches could become a thing of the past, but the engineering needed is many decades away.

What's really exciting about these nanotubes as far as global warming is concerned is not so much their structural potential, but their electrical potential. The nanotubes can not only conduct electricity, but can also be transparent so light can shine through. This is exactly what solar panels need to help convert sunlight into electricity. Small scale tests have already shown that a film of transparent carbon nanotubes on a solar cell can up its efficiency tremendously.

Technicians are continuing to refine the production of carbon nanotubes. As their production gets easier, it's very possible that these thin molecules will revolutionize everything from energy production to building construction.

One last way that carbon helps to combat greenhouse gasses can be found at your local bicycle shop. Over the last few years, bikes are more commonly made out of carbon fiber, essentially the nanotube's lower tech cousin. These fibers are made with less-pure carbon filaments woven into a fabric and injected with resin to form a stiff shape. Carbon fiber bikes can be as strong as steel ones but weigh much less, making it easier to leave the car behind and ride to work.


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