Carbon dating the process
And it uses them: Nearly 10 million carbon compounds have been discovered, and scientists estimate that carbon is the keystone for 95 percent of known compounds, according to the website Chemistry Explained.
Carbon's incredible ability to bond with many other elements is a major reason that it is crucial to almost all life. The element was known to prehistoric humans in the form of charcoal.
Carbon as coal is still a major source of fuel worldwide, providing about 30 percent of energy worldwide, according to the World Coal Association.
Coal is also a key component in steel production, while graphite, another form of carbon, is a common industrial lubricant.
Atoms are arranged as a nucleus surrounded by an electron cloud, with electrons zinging around at different distances from the nucleus.
Perhaps one of the hottest areas in carbon research today, however, involves the "miracle material" graphene. It's the strongest material known while still being ultralight and flexible. Mass-producing graphene is a challenge, though researchers in April 2014 reported that they could make large amounts using nothing but a kitchen blender.
Plants take it up in respiration, in which they convert sugars made during photosynthesis back into energy that they use to grow and maintain other processes, according to Colorado State University.
Animals incorporate carbon-14 into their bodies by eating plants or other plant-eating animals.
[See Periodic Table of the Elements] Carbon occurs naturally as carbon-12, which makes up almost 99 percent of the carbon in the universe; carbon-13, which makes up about 1 percent; and carbon-14, which makes up a minuscule amount of overall carbon but is very important in dating organic objects.
As the sixth-most abundant element in the universe, carbon forms in the belly of stars in a reaction called the triple-alpha process, according to the Swinburne Center for Astrophysics and Supercomputing.
Carbon-14 is a radioactive isotope of carbon used by archaeologists to date objects and remains.