Monday, January 28, 2013

Element of the Month: Scandium!

January's Element of the Month:


Atomic Mass: 44.955912 amu
Melting Point: 1541 °C
Boiling Point: 2836 °C

If you are an IAT/fL&TM5K "old-timer," you might vaguely remember The Thursday Quiz XLI, from all the way back in the summer of aught-eight:
Is it or isn't it a real chemical element?

1. Beryllium - Be - 4
2. Fluorine - F - 9
3. Bronze - B - 12
4. Argon - Ar - 18
5. Scandium - Sc - 21
6. Laudinum - Ld - 27
7. Nickel - Ni - 28
8. Krypton - Kr - 36
9. Yttrium - Y - 39
10. Byzantium - Bt - 63
11. Platinum - Pt - 78
12. Londinium - Ln - 79
Scandium, which really truly is Element 21, received a skeptical reception by the quiz-takers, so a few days later I published a special Michael5000 Salute to Scandium, just to spread the good word. For better or worse, that’s what gave me the idea for Element of the Month.

But enough nostalgia. Scandium in its elemental form is – all together, now – a soft, silvery metal! But it’s hardly ever found in its elemental form. Scandium is one of those elements that is reasonably common – about the 35th most common up here on the Earth’s surface – but is spread so thin that there isn’t very much of it in any one place. It was one of the holes on Mr. Mendeleev’s original spreadsheet, prompting him to suggest that there was probably an “eka-boron” out there to be found. He was right! Since eka-boron was, like so many elements, found by brainy Swedes, it was named after Scandinavia.

The Centerfold!

Because it’s hard to find Scandium in usable quantities, and because it is not especially easy to work with – it wasn’t isolated from its oxide until 1937, and not in a one-pound quantity until 1960 – it is not exactly one of the heavy-hitter elements in the human community. Aside from some technical esoterica, the major useful thing you can do with it is sprinkle a little into your aluminum (or your aluminium, if you’re British) to give it better tolerance to welding. It’s used in some high-end sporting equipment and Russian-made fighter jets. But to give you a sense of scale, the total yearly production of metallic Scandium among humans is said to be in the neighborhood of 25 pounds.

It is also said that Scandium is the 23rd or 24th most common element in the Sun. But since the sun is, to say the least, dominated by its #1 and #2 elements, that’s probably more of a “fun fact” than a “meaningful fact.”  However, H. W. Zhang, T. Gehren, and G. Zhao, authors of “A non-local thermodynamic equilibrum [sic] study of scandium in the Sun” (Astronomy & Astrophysics 481:2, April 2008) might see things differently.

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