10 of the world’s strangest and most awesome substances

All substances are built up from the same set of 118 elements, so how is it possible that they can be so different? Some elements are interesting in themselves, like gallium, which melts in people’s hands, or the powerful nuclear fuel plutonium-238. The atoms of more ordinary elements, like carbon and hydrogen, make up the everyday objects around us. Atoms linked together as molecules even make up our own bodies. Often, carbon atoms are linked together in long chains to create the plastics that we both love and hate. But in some molecular arrangements, carbon can become rather extraordinary.

Organised in flat sheets as graphene and made into an aerogel, carbon becomes the lightest material on record. Carbon also makes the darkest material ever, called Vantablack, in the form of nanotubes that are effectively rolled-up graphene sheets. Or, when combined with hydrogen and fluorine in chains, carbon is part of waterproof textiles that keep us dry.


For more science and technology articles, pick up the latest copy of How It Works from all good retailers or from our website now. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of How It Works magazine, subscribe today!