Carbon: Do call it life

Monday’s episode of The History Channel’s “Modern Marvels” focuses on that most essential of elements, without which not even life is possible: carbon.

The show kicks off by showing how carbon fiber is used to make strong, light construction materials, widely used in cars (both racing and general production), providing greater safety for drivers. It is also a major component of the composite  materials used to make the fuselage of the new, innovative Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which light body provides greater fuel economy.

It also shows the importance of coal considering the environmentalist fear mongering surrounding this element these days, this is well worth watchin powering both the indstrial revolution and the American economy today. Regarding the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions produced by burning coal, the show’s narrator points to new, cleaner coal technologies, such as coal gasification. It also looks at cellulosic ethanol, which, the narrator notes, while it may promise great environmental benefits, is still years from being commercially viable (noting also its advantages over corn ethanol).

Then there are other forms and uses: graphite used to make pencils, activated carbon used to make filters for air and water (“Activated carbon may be the most useful thing you’ll never see”), and aerogel, an extremely low-density solid material which was used for insulation on the NASA Mars rover, the potential uses for which have yet begun to be explored.

Cellulosic ethanol could use greater scrutiny, but it’s still worth watching. (Interestingly, a clean coal ad ran during the show when I watched it.)