Thursday, December 16, 2010

Element of the Month: Antimony!

December's Element of the Month:


Atomic Mass: 121.67 amu
Melting Point: 630.63 °C
Boiling Point: 1587 °C

Antimony is a different word than “anatomy,” no matter what I thought when I was a kid, nor is it a force opposed to mony. It is, rather, a silvery metal like everything else. It’s a substance that has been put to human use for a long time, and in fact we’re told that antimony sulfide was used as much as 5000 years ago, although not by that name. The realization that it was an element would have to wait for 1783 (which is actually pretty early as these things go) when it was pegged as such by the immortal Anton van Swab. You know, of zinc fame.

It is a very soft metal, and the Wiki tells us that its use in Chinese coins in the 1930s was “unpopular because they would wear out fast,” which is certainly not how coins are supposed to work. Another drawback to the whole antimony coin concept is that antimony is toxic in much the same way that arsenic is, so that after extensive skin contact – if you are the sort to jingle your coins in your pocket, say – you might be liable to dermatitis, kidney and liver damage, violent vomiting, and death.

The Centerfold!

Oddly, antimony nevertheless has a few pharmaceutical uses, particularly in veterinary medicine. Its main uses, though, are in alloys with lead and as a fireproofing compound. Beyond that, it has a few incomprehensible uses – it’s a catalyst for making prolyethyleneterephthalate and a dopant for ultra-high conductivity n-type silicon wafers – and the usual array of fantastically esoteric ones, such as being good in the alloys they use to make organ pipes.

It’s medium rare, as elements go. Five times as common as silver, say. There is, furthermore, every reason to fear an antimony gap, as more than four-fifths of the world’s production comes from China. We may hope that continued peace among the world’s peoples will not restrict anyone’s access to prolyethyleneterephthalate or high-quality organ pipes.

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