Saturday, April 15, 2017

Tellurium Seabed Mining: Renewable Energy Conundrum?

Given that they cost lass energy to refine than their counterparts found on land, should we be mining the seabed for rare but useful minerals like tellurium? 

By: Ringo Bones 

The late eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes started an exploratory venture of deep sea seabed mining during the late 1960s and early 1970s but didn’t prove to be economically viable at the time because technology used for such an undertaking were still at its infancy. But given the advances of autonomous undersea craft in the 21st Century, should we be exploring the viability of deep sea seabed mining because minerals used in renewable energy production like rare earth magnets used in wind turbines and tellurium used in advanced photovoltaic solar panels costs less energy to process and extract in comparison to their land-mined counterparts? But first, here’s a brief primer on the relatively rare element called tellurium. 

The element tellurium was first discovered by Müller von Reichenstein in 1782, by Martin Heinrich Klaproth in 1798 and by Jakob Berzelius in 1832. On land, it is usually found in sulfide ores of copper and silver at 0.0000002-percent abundance. With both metallic and nonmetallic traits, tellurium has several peculiarities. It is “out of step” in the periodic table having a lower atomic number but higher atomic weight than iodine. It wasn’t produced in industrial quantities until the 1920s because it has a very negative effect on the human physiology. As tellurium enters your body, either by inhalation, ingestion or via skin absorption, our physiology turns it into mercaptans for easier excretion from our bodies. Unfortunately, tellurium based mercaptans smell like human turds mixed in with rotting garlic and until it is completely excreted from your body, you would become a social outcast for about two weeks. Taking a shower only makes the tellurium mercaptan smell worse, which explains why tellurium and its compounds are only processed in an isolated and/or hermetically sealed space.    

Recently, British scientists exploring an underwater mountain in the Atlantic Ocean have discovered a treasure trove of rare earth minerals in a Tenerife undersea mountain known as the Tropic Seamount located more than 500 kilometers (300 miles) away from the Canary Islands. Samples brought back to the surface contain not only a high concentration of rare earth elements but also a scarce element called tellurium used in newfangled super-efficient photovoltaic solar panels at concentrations 50,000 times higher than in deposits found on land. Given that rare earth metals are used in powerful magnets that made low carbon energy generation a reality, should we be mining the seabed despite of the largely unknown ecological consequences? 

Dr. Bram Murton, the leader of the expedition, told the BBC that he had been expecting to find abundant minerals on the Tropic Seamount but not in such high concentrations. Dr. Murton calculated that the 2,670 metric tons of tellurium on this single seamount represents one-twelfth of the world’s total supply. And Dr. Murton has come up with a hypothetical estimate that if the entire deposit could be extracted and used to make solar panels, it could meet 65-percent of the UK’s electricity demand. One major concern is the effect of plumes of dust stirred up by the excavation of the ocean floor, spreading for long distances and smothering all life whenever it settles. To understand the implications, the expedition to Tropic Seamount conducted an experiment, the first of its kind, to mimic the effects of mining and to measure the resulting plume. The researchers hope that the environmental impact outweighs the resulting carbon dioxide reduction as we intensify the shift to more renewable energy generation.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Jahn-Teller Metals: A New Form Of Matter?

Given its ability to become an insulator and a superconductor just by varying the applied pressure, are Jahn-Teller metals qualify as a new form of matter? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Back in May 12, 2015, researchers at Japan’s Tohoku University are making a bold claim saying that they had discovered an entirely new form of matter. The team led by Kosmas Prassides, says they’ve created what’s called a Jahn-Teller metal by inserting atoms of rubidium – a strange alkali metal more chemically reactive than pure metallic sodium – into buckyballs or buckminsterfullerene, a pure carbon structure which has a spherical shape formed from a series of interlocking polygons of carbon atoms. Buckyballs, which are somewhat related to other carbon supermaterials like graphene and carbon nanotubes, are already known for their superconductive capabilities. Here, while combining buckyballs and rubidium, the researchers created a complex crystalline structure that seemed to conduct, insulate and magnetize while acting as a metal. It goes beyond what ordinary matter can do. 

Jahn-Teller metals have recently created a buzz in the scientific community because such esoteric form of matter could serve as a key to understanding one of the biggest mysteries in physics that has baffled them since the late 1980s – i.e. the phenomenon of high-temperature superconductivity. Named after the Jahn-Teller Effect which is used in chemistry to describe how at low pressures the geometric arrangement of molecules and ions in an electronic state can become distorted. This new state of matter allows scientists to transform an insulator – which can’t conduct electricity – into a conductor by simply applying pressure. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Has Element 113 Finally Been Discovered?

Long thought to be too unstable to be synthesized in our current atom smashers, is the recent announcement by the IUPAC serves as a true confirmation of the “creation” of Element 113?

By: Ringo Bones

In January 4, 2016, officials from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) have announced the confirmation of the discovery of not only the elusive and unstable Element 113 but also its close siblings – elements 115, 117 and 118, stating that there is now enough evidence to give them permanent places on the Periodic Table of the Elements. This also means that they also need their respective new, official names. 

By their very nature, you won’t find these four newly discovered elements occurring naturally in reasonable abundance because they can only be produced synthetically in our corner of the universe because their isotopes that we manage to synthesize so far decay in a matter of seconds or less. Their existence has been theorized but has been difficult to confirm. Until now, elements 113, 115, 117 and 118 had temporary names and positions on the bottom “Seventh Row” of the Periodic Table of the Elements because – probably since the 1980s – scientists have struggled to create them more than once for “scientifically verifiable results”.
Kosuke Morita and team of RIKEN in Japan had been credited for the discovery of Element 113 and its close siblings. He says: “For over seven years we continued to search for data conclusively identifying Element 113, but we just never saw another event. I was not prepared to give up however, as I believed that one day, if we persevered, luck would fall upon us again.” 

Morita’s team has been credited with the confirmed discovery of Element 113, which means they’ve won the naming rights too. Until now, the element had been known by the temporary name ununtrium and the temporary chemical symbol Uut. The three remaining elements – 115, 117 and 118 – known temporarily as ununpentium (Uup), ununseptium (Uus) and ununoctium (Uuo) respectively will also get new names. 

Previous attempts to synthesize and the discovery of Element 113 and Element 115 were reported back in February 2004 following experiments carried out between July 4 and August 10, 2003. In these experiments, the primary product was the four nuclei of Element 115 isotopes. All these four nuclei decayed through the emission of u- particles to isotopes of Element 113. But the claim has not been ratified by the IUPAC back then because of a lack of scientifically verifiable reproducibility of the results. 

Ever since the discovery of Element 114 back in 1999 as the event was announced through e-mail which was then published in the April 1999 issue of Scientific American magazine by scientists at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna near Moscow reported strong evidence that they have created the heaviest element yet, one with 114 protons and i84 neutrons, many a nuclear physicists suggest that Element 113 is critically located in an unstable region of the Periodic Table that attempts to synthesize it only resulted in the creation of more stable heavier elements of a higher atomic number. A team led by Yuri Oganesian and Vladimir Utyonkov smashed a rare isotope – calcium-48 – with a plutonium-244 target to synthesize Element 114. Element 114 lasted an astonishing 30 seconds, far longer that the 280 microseconds of the previously discovered Element 112. The relatively long life of Element 114 was taken as proof that “islands of stability” exists in the super heavy element range. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Boron: The Famous Chemical Element You've Never Heard About?

It may currently have a myriad of uses but do most of us even know some common household applications of the chemical element boron? 

By: Ringo Bones

Outside of a high-school chemistry class, the chemical element boron managed to grab the headlines with regards to its usefulness in our everyday life since the end of World War II. From the boron automotive fuel adverts cobbled up by Madison Avenue “Mad Men” back in the 1950s supposedly “inspired” by the XB-70 Valkyrie to the high end boron composites used in high-end vinyl cartridge cantilevers and tennis racquets in the 1990s, it seems that boron’s claim to fame unfortunately never managed to register in the general public’s consciousness even though that without it, modern life as we know it is nigh on impossible. 

Boron, chemical symbol B, is a semimetallic chemical element. It is a member of the aluminum family, which also includes aluminum, gallium, indium and thallium. It was discovered by Louis Gay-Lussac and Louis Jacques Thénard back in 1808. Thénard and Gay-Lussac’s results were confirmed in the same year by Sir Humphry Davy, who had isolated boron, but had not recognized it as a new element in 1807. Boron is best known in the form of one of its salts, boric acid, which is used as an eye-wash. Boron is obtained primarily from borax and colemanite, both of which are compounds of boron, oxygen and sodium. The world’s leading producer of boron is the United States; other major producers are Argentina, Turkey and Germany. 

Boron is found at the top of Group IIIA of the periodic table. There are two allotropes of boron; a crystalline form which is harder than corundrum and has a luster, and a brown amorphous powder, whose electrical conductivity is 2-million times greater at 400 degrees Celsius than at room temperature. 

Boron, in its elemental form, is used chiefly in the metal industries. It is used as a deoxidizer and degasifier in metallurgical processes; in alloy steels to increase high temperature strength characteristics; in the heat treatment of malleable iron; and in refining the grain of aluminum castings. Boron, combined with aluminum or plastics, is an effective and lightweight neutron-shielding material; for this reason, boron steels have found use as control rods in atomic fission nuclear reactors. When shaped by hot-pressing methods, boron finds use in phonographic needles, lightning arresters, thermoelectric couples, resistance thermometers and similar electrical devices. 

The element is also a component of “boron fuels” which have been used for propelling space vehicles and as a very energetic jet fuel during the XB-70 Valkyrie experimental Mach 3 capable heavy strategic bomber program. A boron based jet fuel called tri-ethyl borane or TEB guaranties ignition in the engines of the SR-71 Blackbird even at minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit – the ambient temperature at 70,000 feet. And back in the 1950s, boron gasoline / boron automotive fuels were all the rage no doubt “inspired” by the US Air Force’s XB-70 Valkyrie program. 

In the combined form, boron is used in the ceramic, glass, enamel and mining industries. Refined borax is an ingredient in many detergents and soaps, laundry starches, water-softening compounds, adhesives, cosmetics and disinfecting products for fruit and lumber. Boron compounds are also used in the manufacture of paper, plastics and leather. 

It may be one of the least glamorous of all the health supplements, but boron could actually help reduce the risk of prostate cancer. In the first epedemiologic study of this trace element, researchers have found out that men who consume the most boron, 1,8 micrograms a day, have a 62 percent lower chance of developing prostate cancer, compared with those who get half that amount. Foods which are the best source of dietary boron are nuts, fruits like grapes, prunes and avocado and vegetables and also wine.  

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Transfer Reactions: A Way To Create Stable Elements Beyond 106?

Even though creating transuranic elements in the lab has been regarded to as a mere “scientific curiosity”, is there a way to create new ones beyond the atomic number 106?

By: Ringo Bones 

 These days, most of the general public is not jumping up and down with excitement when it comes to synthesizing new elements beyond the atomic number 106. But for almost 35 years now, there has been a very promising method of creating “relatively stable” new elements beyond the atomic number 106. 

At the start of the 1980s, nuclear chemists have thus far been frustrated in their attempts to create super heavy elements with atomic numbers greater than 106, although theories predict that some such elements may be relatively stable. Back in 1980, hopes turned to “transfer reactions” in which one nucleus transfers a portion of its nucleons to another nucleus during a collision. Traditionally, it has been believed that colliding nuclei should combine totally to form a compound nucleus, but Prof. Darlene Hoffman and colleagues from Los Alamos Labs in New Mexico observed that partial combinations occur in certain reactions. The transfer mechanism holds out hope for producing some of the super heavy elements. 

Back in 1999, the technique of transfer reactions did manage to generate some excitement – and a brand new element. Via an e-mail announcement back then, scientists at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, near Moscow reported strong evidence that they have created the heaviest element yet, one with 114 protons and 184 neutrons. In a recently published work back then, a team of nuclear physicists led by Yuri Oganessian and Vladimir Utyonkov smashed a rare isotope, calcium-48 with a plutonium-244 target to make the element 114. The then brand new element lasted an astonishingly long 30 seconds before decaying into another lighter element, far longer than the 280 microseconds of the last new element found – element 113. The relatively long life of element 114 proves that “islands of stability” exist in the super heavy element range.