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carbon dioxide

carbon dioxide, chemical compound, CO2, a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas that is about one and one-half times as dense as air under ordinary conditions of temperature and pressure. It does not burn, and under normal conditions it is stable, inert and nontoxic. It will however support combustion of magnesium to give magnesium oxide and carbon. Although it is not a poison, it can cause death by suffocation if inhaled in large amounts. It is a fairly stable compound but decomposes at very high temperatures into carbon and oxygen. It is fairly soluble in water, one volume of it dissolving in an equal volume of water at room temperature and pressure; the resultant weakly acidic aqueous solution is called carbonic acid. The gas is easily liquefied by compression and cooling. If liquid carbon dioxide is quickly decompressed it rapidly expands and some of it evaporates, removing enough heat so that the rest of it cools into solid carbon dioxide "snow." A standard test for the presence of carbon dioxide is its reaction with limewater (a saturated water solution of calcium hydroxide) to form a milky-white precipitate of calcium hydroxide.

Carbon dioxide occurs in nature both free and in combination (e.g., in carbonates). It is part of the atmosphere, making up about 1% of the volume of dry air. Because it is a product of combustion of carbonaceous fuels (e.g., coal, coke, fuel oil, gasoline, and cooking gas), there is usually more of it in city air than in country air. For the last 800,000 years the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has oscillated over tens of thousands of years between 180 to 280 parts per million (ppm), but since the Industrial Revolution it has steadily increased above 280 ppm in a relatively brief time, reaching 400 ppm in 2013. This extra carbon dioxide fuels the greenhouse effect, warming the atmosphere and further disrupting the natural carbon dioxide cycle (see global warming).

In various parts of the world—notably in Italy, Java, and Yellowstone National Park in the United States—carbon dioxide is formed underground and issues from fissures in the earth. Natural mineral waters such as Vichy water sparkle (effervesce) because excess carbon dioxide that dissolved in them under pressure collects in bubbles and escapes when the pressure is released. The chokedamp (see damp) of mines, pits, and old, unused wells is largely carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a raw material for photosynthesis in green plants and is a product of animal respiration. It is also a product of the decay of organic matter.

Carbon dioxide has varied commercial uses. Its greatest use as a chemical is in the production of carbonated beverages; it provides the sparkle in carbonated beverages such as soda water. Formed by the action of yeast or baking powder, carbon dioxide causes the rising of bread dough. The compound is also used in water softening, in the manufacture of aspirin and lead paint pigments, and in the Solvay process for the preparation of sodium carbonate. In some fire extinguishers carbon dioxide is expelled through a nozzle and settles on the flame, smothering it. It also has numerous nonchemical uses. It is used as a pressurizing medium and propellant, e.g., in aerosol cans of food, in fire extinguishers, in target pistols, and for inflating life rafts. Because it is relatively inert, it is used to provide a nonreactive atmosphere, e.g., for packaging foods, such as coffee, that can be spoiled by oxidation during storage. Solid carbon dioxide, known as dry ice, is used as a refrigerating agent.

There are three principal commercial sources for carbon dioxide. High-purity carbon dioxide is produced from some wells. The gas is obtained as a byproduct of chemical manufacture, as in the fermentation of grain to make alcohol and the burning of limestone to make lime. It is also manufactured directly by burning carbonaceous fuels. For commercial use it is available as a liquid under high pressure in steel cylinders, as a low-temperature liquid at lower pressures, and as the solid dry ice.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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