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Q & A: burning to carbon

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Most recent answer: 10/22/2007
Q:
When any type of object is broken down by releasing it’s energy does it always revert to carbon? and if so does that make carbon the most basic element, and does this mean that all other elements are some how evolved forms of carbon that have been transformed by energy into other elements? exp. if you burn anything, all thats left is ash(carbon) despite the object or the entsity of heat needed to break down the object.
- David (age 30)
LA, CA
A:
All sorts of things can burn chemically or undergo nuclear reactions and end up being something besides carbon. For example, hydrogen and oxygen burn to make water. Nuclear fission and fusion processes make different elements than the starting elements, but usually not carbon.

Most of the things you burn are left over from some sort of living thing- maybe a tree or a cow. Our form of life is filled with molecules largely consisting of carbon, so it is often a prominent ingredient of the ashes.

Carbon is most often is present in incompletely burned ashes. Carbon itself burns, combining with oxygen to make CO2 (and sometimes carbon monoxide). Charcoal production involves incomplete burning of wood, and the high-carbon product can burn further. Soot is a byproduct of fires which consists mostly of carbon, but even soot can burn, which is why it's a good idea to sweep a chimney every so often.

If you burn something completely, the ashes may contain all kinds of other stuff that didn't burn, and the carbon should burn away. Real fires tend to burn incompletely.

Mike W. and Tom J.

(published on 10/22/2007)

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