What is the Difference Between Inorganic and Organic Carbon

Inorganic and organic carbon are two distinct forms of carbon found in nature. Inorganic carbon includes carbon compounds that do not contain carbon-hydrogen bonds. Organic carbon, on the other hand, comprises carbon compounds containing carbon-hydrogen bonds, forming the basis of all living matter, including carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. Understanding the difference between organic carbon and inorganic carbon is essential in fields ranging from chemistry and biology to environmental science and geology.

What is the difference between organic carbon and inorganic carbon? Organic carbon plays a crucial role in biological processes, while inorganic carbon is essential in geological processes and the carbon cycle.

Key Areas Covered

1. What is Inorganic Carbon
      – Definition, Features, Role
2. What is Organic Carbon
      – Definition, Features, Role 
3. Similarities Between Inorganic and Organic Carbon
      – Outline of Common Features
4. Difference Between Inorganic and Organic Carbon
      – Comparison of Key Differences
5. FAQ: Inorganic and Organic Carbon
      – Frequently Asked Questions

Key Terms

Inorganic Organic, Organic Carbon, Carbon

Difference Between Inorganic and Organic Carbon - Comparison Summary

What is Inorganic Carbon

Inorganic carbon refers to carbon compounds that lack carbon-hydrogen bonds, distinguishing them from organic carbon compounds. It plays a crucial role in various natural processes, particularly in the carbon cycle, which encompasses the movement of carbon between the atmosphere, oceans, land, and living organisms. Inorganic carbon exists in several forms, including carbon dioxide, carbonic acid, bicarbonate ions, and carbonate ions.

Carbon dioxide, the most abundant inorganic carbon compound, is a colorless, odorless gas vital for photosynthesis in plants, where it serves as a carbon source. Additionally, CO2 plays a significant role in regulating Earth’s climate as a greenhouse gas, influencing the planet’s temperature.

Inorganic Carbon

Carbonic acid, formed when carbon dioxide dissolves in water, plays a critical role in maintaining the pH balance of aquatic environments. It serves as a buffer against changes in acidity, helping to support aquatic life by stabilizing the pH within a suitable range.

Bicarbonate ions and carbonate ions are prevalent in aqueous solutions, particularly in the oceans, where they contribute to the ocean’s carbonate buffering system. This system helps regulate the ocean’s pH and calcium carbonate saturation state, which are crucial for the formation of marine shells and skeletons by organisms like corals and mollusks.

Inorganic carbon also plays a role in geological processes, such as the weathering of rocks and the formation of sedimentary rocks like limestone, dolomite, and chalk. Over long geological timescales, these processes can influence atmospheric CO2 levels, contributing to the regulation of Earth’s climate.

What is Organic Carbon

Organic carbon is a fundamental component of the Earth’s carbon cycle, needed for supporting life and maintaining ecological balance. It refers to carbon-containing compounds derived from living organisms or their remains, which are essential for sustaining various biological processes. Organic carbon exists in different forms, ranging from simple molecules like sugars and amino acids to complex polymers such as proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids.

One of the primary sources of organic carbon is photosynthesis, where green plants and algae convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into organic molecules using sunlight and water. These organic compounds form the basis of food chains, providing energy and nutrients to heterotrophic organisms, which cannot produce their own food. Organic carbon also plays a vital role in soil fertility, as organic matter decomposes, releasing nutrients essential for plant growth and supporting microbial communities.

Organic Carbon

In aquatic environments, organic carbon is involved in various biogeochemical processes, including respiration, decomposition, and sedimentation. It serves as a substrate for microbial activity, influencing nutrient cycling and water quality. Additionally, organic carbon contributes to the carbon storage in marine sediments, impacting global carbon budgets and climate regulation.

Human activities, such as agriculture, deforestation, and industrialization, have significantly altered the distribution and cycling of organic carbon in ecosystems. Deforestation, for instance, reduces the input of organic matter into soils, leading to soil degradation and decreased carbon sequestration. Likewise, agricultural practices like tillage and monoculture farming can accelerate soil erosion and carbon loss.

Similarities Between Organic and Inorganic Carbon

  1. Both can exist in various chemical forms.
  2. Both organic and inorganic carbon play crucial roles in biological processes.

Difference Between Organic Carbon and Inorganic Carbon


  • Organic carbon refers to carbon-containing compounds that contain carbon-hydrogen bonds, while inorganic carbon refers to carbon compounds lacking carbon-hydrogen bonds.


  • Moreover, organic carbon is primarily derived from living organisms or their decayed remains, while inorganic carbon can originate from various geological processes, volcanic activity, and atmospheric processes like the weathering of rocks.


  • Organic carbon compounds often exhibit higher reactivity due to the presence of functional groups and multiple bonding sites, allowing for diverse chemical reactions. Inorganic carbon compounds like CO2 are relatively stable but can participate in reactions such as carbonation, dissolution, and precipitation in the environment.


In conclusion, the difference between organic and inorganic carbon lies in their chemical composition, with organic carbon containing carbon-hydrogen bonds and inorganic carbon lacking them. Inorganic carbon, including forms like carbon dioxide, carbonic acid, bicarbonate, and carbonate ions, is vital for geological processes, the carbon cycle, and maintaining pH balance in aquatic environments. It influences climate regulation, marine life, and the formation of sedimentary rocks. While both organic and inorganic carbon are crucial in biological processes, organic carbon, derived from living organisms, exhibits higher reactivity due to complex structures and functional groups.

FAQ: Organic Carbon and Inorganic Carbon

1. How do you make organic carbon?

Leaving crop residues on the soil surface increases the input of carbon to the soil and retains soil moisture. Over time, stubble breaks down and contributes to soil organic carbon.

2. Is CO2 organic carbon?

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is classified as an inorganic compound since it lacks carbon-hydrogen (C-H) bonds. As a key component of the carbon cycle, CO2 plays a vital role in geological processes, atmospheric chemistry, and climate regulation.

3. What is an example of organic carbon molecules?

Butane is a gaseous hydrocarbon with the molecular formula C4H10, and it exists as a chain of four carbon atoms with 10 attached hydrogen atoms.

4. Why is organic carbon important?

Soil organic carbon (SOC) plays a critical role in terrestrial ecosystem functioning as the dominant energy source for microorganisms and as a fundamental control of soil structure and ecosystem productivity.

5. What are the 4 types of organic carbon compounds?

They are carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. Carbohydrates serve as energy sources and structural components, lipids function in energy storage and cell membrane structure, proteins are involved in various cellular processes and serve as enzymes, and nucleic acids carry genetic information and play a role in protein synthesis.


1. “Organic Carbonic.” Science Direct.
2. “Inorganic Carbonic.” Science Direct.

Image Courtesy:

1. “Carbon cycle-cute diagram” By Original: Kevin Saff Vector: FischX – Own work based on: Carbon cycle-cute diagram.jpeg (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia
2. “Photosynthesis en” By At09kg, Wattcle, NefronusAt09kg: originalWattcle: vector graphicsNefronus: redoing the vector graphics – This file was derived from: Photosynthesis.gif (CC BY-SA 4.0) via Commons Wikimedia

About the Author: Hasini A

Hasini is a graduate of Applied Science with a strong background in forestry, environmental science, chemistry, and management science. She is an amateur photographer with a keen interest in exploring the wonders of nature and science.

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