Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Element of the Month: Tungsten!

May's Element of the Month:


Atomic Mass: 183.84 amu
Melting Point: 3422 °C
Boiling Point: 5555 °C

Why does everybody love Tungsten? That's easy: its name is "Tungsten," but its chemical symbol is "W"! This is because this steel-grey metal -- doesn't it seem like almost everything is a steel grey metal? -- is called "Wolfram" in selected locations. It doesn't hurt that "Tungsten," and "Wolfram" too for that matter, are kind of fun to say. Try it! Say them out loud, right now! Tungsten! Wolfram!

Tungsten is another one of those elements that is never found in its pure form in nature. That doesn't mean it's especially rare, though; depending on whom you ask, it's around the 19th most common element here on the Earth's crust. There is not much of it, however, in you; it's only the 58th most common element in the human body. Tungsten is, interestingly, the heaviest element known to be essential for the function of certain life forms. By a long shot! But I'm not exactly sure how that works, and I'm pretty sure present company is excluded. We higher primates don't need anything heavier than Iodine, is my understanding.

The Centerfold!

Now, I don't know if you noticed about Tungsten's melting point, so I'll just pause for a moment while you scroll back up and check it out.

...CAN YOU FREAKING BELIEVE THAT?!? 3422°C is just REALLY, REALLY HOT. Like, incredibly hot. Look at it this way: what metalic element do you think of as being really, really resistant to heat? You think of Titanium, am I right? Well, Titanium is a BIG WUSS of an element that melts at 1668°C. Tungsten hasn't even taken its sweatshirt off at 1668°C!!!

Combine this with the fact that, once you get it smelted down (or whatever) to its pure form, Tungsten is really strong, really hard, and hardly expands or contracts at all with temperature changes, and it's no surprise that our nerdy brethren in the engineering field have found plenty to love about it. It's used wherever stuff needs to get really hot, as in halogen light bulbs, rocket nozzles, heating elements, and welding. It's alloyed into steel to render it tough and temperature resistant. Because of its weight -- we're way up at atomic number 74, remember -- it's also used by weapons manufacturers in the construction of items designed to rip through other items with the sheer power of their momentum. This is not pleasant to contemplate in its specifics, but since such items are otherwise often made with depleted uranium, Tungsten is at least the environmentally sensitive choice for all your "kinetic energy penetration" armaments.

It is also used in various aerospace applications, electron microscopes, nuclear medical equipment, and fishing lures.

We humans collectively drag 45,100 tons of Tungsten out of the Earth every year. Most of it is mined in China these days, but it used to be Portugal that was the leading producer. In fact, Portugal's Tungsten was a highly sought after strategic resource, and in WWII both sides of the conflict put heaps of pressure on the neutral little Iberian country about whom it should and should not sell its Tungsten to. Now frankly, I was skeptical of how important Tungsten could possibly have been -- after all, I bet that there was tons of pressure on Portugal during WWII for all sorts of reasons -- but check this out:
For Portugal's Government, the "wolfram question" was the most difficult of all World War II diplomatic negotiations.... The "Wolfram War" severaly tested Portugal's status of neutrality as well as its regime's stability and control of its perturbed economy....
Or so says Douglas L. Wheeler, writing in the Luso-Brazilian Review (XXIII, 1986). But I'm still kind of skeptical.

Anyway, these days if you want to add some Wolfram to your personal stockpile of strategic materials, it's running around US$30/kg, no worse than the price of raw uranium, ferro-molybdenum, low-grade ivory, or artisanal salami.


Cartophiliac said...

I never can remember the name of this element... its right on the tip of my...

Elizabeth said...

Kinetic energy penetration with - a salami!

Michael5000 said...


UnwiseOwl said...

The rest of us might know it as World War two, but the Portugese call it the Wolfram War? I think I'm going to take a leaf out of Portugal's book and rename all the wars after chemical elements.

Sadly, I'm pretty sure I'd run out of elements before I ran out of wars.

Jenners said...

I like Wolfram so much better ... sounds so gothic!

Jennifer said...

Wait. Fishing lures? Are they making them with lasers these days, or are they shooting them at the fish or something?

Michael5000 said...

I think maybe Tungsten goes into the sinkers. It's heavy as Lead! Actually, heavier!

Morgan said...

From my limited fishing experience, yes it is a component in the chemical makeup of sinkers.

Rebel said...

I'm totally naming my first son Wolfram!

chuckdaddy said...

Very persuasive. I think Tungsten should be Element of the year.