5 Minerals You Didn’t Know You Used Everyday

On January 24, 2015 by Tim Newman

Everyday Elements - Potassium

One things for sure, modern life is complicated. There’s a load of stuff that we use each and every day that we hardly even notice anymore. How do they put bristles in a toothbrush? I don’t know, but I’m assuming there’s a machine that does it. Who invented that machine and how much does one cost? I don’t know. Where are they made? Who cares?

That’s just a basic example of course.

What I’m saying is, we are lucky that we don’t have to pay much attention to where our bristles are inserted. We just get given things and they work. I fear that each successive generation will become so separated from the wonder of technology that we will explode in a vacuum of idiocy.

A few nights ago I was talking to my pal and his young daughter. We told her that we didn’t have the internet when we were her age and she just said “why?” We are so used to the splendor that we don’t even wonder where it comes from any more, we just assume that that’s the way it should be.

Any how. What I’ve done here is written down some of the chemicals and elements we use every day that I knew nothing about:

1) Antimony (Sb) Atomic Number 51

Everyday Elements - Antimony - Stibnite

Antimony was used in ancient Egypt as makeup, evidence of this type of use stretches back to 3100 BC. It’s mostly brought out of the ground in China and nowadays it gets used in batteries predominantly.

Mixed in with lead and tin Antimony is also used in bullets (which I hope you don’t use every day), bearings and solders. The element can also be found in a number of fire-retardant coatings.

2) Barium (Ba) Atomic Number 56

Everyday Elements - Barium

Discovered in 1774, barium is now used in a handful of modern applications. It is added to fireworks to produce a green colouration, it gets used in some X-ray procedures and the production of rubber and glass. But most importantly, barium makes a great ingredient in rat poison.

3) Beryllium (Be) Atomic Number 4

Everyday Elements - Beryllium

Beryllium is highly toxic, but sweet to taste, what a bummer. It’s pretty rare to find it in the universe floating about on its own, it’s virtually always glued in with some other compounds. Beryllium can be found in over 100 different natural minerals, but most of those are rare.

The United States, China and Kazakhstan are the only three countries involved in the industrial-scale extraction of beryllium. It is often mixed with other metals to improve their properties, for instance, copper tools alloyed with beryllium are incredibly hard and do not spark when used on steel.

Beryllium has a particularly low density for a metal (just 1.85 times that of water) so it is used in aircraft components, missiles, spacecraft, and satellites. Don’t breathe it in though, it’ll kill you.

4) Coltan (Columbite–Tantalite)

Everyday Elements - Ferrocolumbite-Manganotantalite

Coltan is a dull black metallic ore from which the elements niobium and tantalum are extracted. If you’re viewing this article on a mobile device then you’ve got some coltan derivatives in your hands right now.

Coltan is used extensively in the world of electronic gadgetry and as a special bonus the trade in coltan fuels and finances some pretty serious conflicts in unstable regions e.g. Democratic Republic of Congo. It is possible to recycle and reuse coltan products but currently more than 70% is dug fresh out of the ground. We wouldn’t want to have to pay over the odds for our lovely new iJazz, would we now?

In 2000 as the call for the Playstation 2 went stratospheric, so did the cost of coltan and so did the level of violence in the Congo. As electronics become ever more pervasive, the need for coltan rises. As many as 90% of Congolese men now work in the coltan trade. Corruption ensures that the good money made from the sale of coltan never trickles down.

Everyday Elements - Coltan militias

Added to the human cost, many of the areas in the DPRC where the coltan is mined are hot spots for gorillas who are feeling the pinch. Their territories are infringed on and many are killed for “bush meat” for workers and for extra cash. Some gorilla populations have been halved in recent years.

Much like “dolphin-friendly” tuna labels, it might not be long before we have “gorilla-friendly” mobile phones.

5) Molybdenum (Mo) Atomic Number 42

Everyday Elements - Molybdenite

The metallic element known as Molybdenum has the sixth highest melting points of all elements. This makes it useful in a number of processes including the manufacture of armour, aircraft parts, electrical contacts, industrial motors and filaments. It’s also used in certain types of stainless steel. Molybdenum powder is also used as a fertilizer for some plants, such as the humble cauliflower.

Molybdenum anodes replace tungsten in certain low voltage X-ray sources, for specialized uses such as mammography.

And we’re done. How about that? I feel slightly wiser and a bit more worried.

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