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carbon has four electrons in the outer ring and two in the inner ring

Diagram of a carbon atom

When a star has changed all of the hydrogen atoms into helium, it begins to convert the helium atoms into carbon atoms and oxygen atoms. All of the carbon in the universe was made inside stars. Carbon atoms are heavier than helium or hydrogen, because they have six protons and (usually) six neutrons in the nucleus, and six electrons going around the outside.

The six electrons can’t all go around the nucleus at the same distance – only two electrons can fit in the inner shell. So some of the electrons have to go farther away from the nucleus. A carbon atom has two shells, with two electrons in the inner shell and four electrons in the outer shell.

a truck with black smoke coming out of two pipes

Carbon soot coming out of a truck

But that outer shell could hold as many as eight electrons – it’s not full. That makes it very easy for carbon to combine with other atoms to make bigger molecules. A lot of carbon combines with oxygen to make carbon monoxide (one oxygen atom) or carbon dioxide (two oxygen atoms), for example.

All living things on Earth are made mostly of hydrocarbons(molecules of hydrogen and carbon) and water (molecules of hydrogen and oxygen). Both plants and animals are about 18 per cent carbon. We’re all made out of the insides of stars! Plants get carbon by taking carbon dioxide out of the air and breaking off the oxygen atoms, and animals (including people) get carbon by eating plants or other animals. Animals recombine the carbon with oxygen to make carbon dioxide, which is what you breathe out. And when plants and animals die, their bodies also gradually become carbon dioxide again.

Most of what we use for fuel is made of carbon, too. Charcoal, coal, gasoline, oil, and wood are all made of hydrocarbons. In the picture you can see leftover carbon dust pouring out of this truck that burns diesel fuel. It’s this carbon pouring into the air and combining with oxygen to make extra carbon dioxide that’s causing global warming.

Learn by doing: candles and car exhaust
What is carbon dioxide?

More about charcoal

More about coal

Bibliography and further reading about carbon atoms:

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