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Carbon Dioxide - Windows to the Universe

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The Winter 2010 issue of The Earth Scientist includes a variety of educational resources, ranging from astronomy to glaciers. Check out the other publications and classroom materials in our online store.
Shown here are four representations chemists use for carbon dioxide. In the colored models, carbon is light gray and oxygen is red.
Click on image for full size
Windows to the Universe original artwork by Randy Russell.

Carbon Dioxide - CO2

Carbon dioxide is a colorless and non-flammable gas at normal temperature and pressure. Although much less abundant than nitrogen and oxygen in Earth's atmosphere, carbon dioxide is an important constituent of our planet's atmosphere. A molecule of carbon dioxide (CO2) is made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms.

Carbon dioxide is an important greenhouse gas that helps to trap heat in our atmosphere through the greenhouse effect. Without it, our planet would be inhospitably cold. However, a gradual increase in CO2 concentrations in Earth's atmosphere is helping to drive global warming, threatening to disrupt our planet's climate as average global temperatures gradually rise.

Carbon dioxide is the fourth most abundant component of dry air. It has a concentration of 380 ppmv (parts per million by volume) in Earth's atmosphere. Scientists estimate that before human industrial activity, CO2 concentration was around 270 ppmv. Carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere have thus risen about 40% since the onset of human industrialization, and are expected to play a troubling role in raising global temperature. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have varied substantially in the pre-human history of our planet, and have had profound impacts on global temperatures in the past.

Carbon dioxide plays a key role in Earth's carbon cycle, the set of processes that cycle carbon in many forms throughout our environment. Volcanic outgassing and wildfires are two significant natural sources of CO2 in Earth's atmosphere. Respiration, the process by which organisms liberate energy from food, emits carbon dioxide. When you exhale, it is carbon dioxide (amongst other gases) that you breathe out. Combustion, whether in the guise of wildfires, as a result of slash-and-burn agricultural practices, or in internal combustion engines, produces carbon dioxide.

Photosynthesis, the biochemical process by which plants and some microbes create food, uses up carbon dioxide. Photosynthetic organisms combine CO2 and water (H2O) to produce carbohydrates (such as sugars) and emit oxygen as a byproduct. Places such as forests and areas of the ocean that support photosynthetic microbes therefore act as massive carbon "sinks", removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via photosynthesis. Earth's early atmosphere had much higher CO2 levels and almost no oxygen; the rise of photosynthetic organisms led to an increase in oxygen which enabled the development of oxygen-breathing creatures such as us!

Burning generates CO2, although incomplete combustion due to limited oxygen supply or an excess of carbon can also produce carbon monoxide (CO). Carbon monoxide, a dangerous pollutant, eventually oxidizes to carbon dioxide.

Small canisters containing pressurized CO2 are used to inflate bicycle tires and life jackets and to power paintball guns. The "fizz" in soda pop is supplied by carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is also released by yeast during fermentation, giving beer its head and making champagne bubbly. Because it is not flammable, CO2 is used in some fire extinguishers. Carbon dioxide forms a weak acid, called carbonic acid (H2CO3), when dissolved in water.

Carbon dioxide is the most abundant gas in the atmospheres of Mars and Venus. Solid, frozen carbon dioxide is called "dry ice". The polar ice caps of Mars are a mixture of normal water ice and dry ice. Liquid CO2 only forms at pressures higher than about 5 times the atmospheric pressure on Earth at sea level, so in many situations dry ice does not melt into a liquid form. Instead, it goes directly from a solid state to a gaseous state in a process called sublimation.

Last modified October 15, 2011 by Jennifer Bergman.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF