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. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Do Protons Really Last Forever?

With the lower limit for the lifetime of a proton is described to be 100 billion trillion times longer than the age of the universe, do protons really last forever? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Those Madison Avenue “Mad Men” hired by DeBeers may have been a little way off the mark when they made a bold advertising claim that “A diamond is forever” – well, at least on a human timescale. But in the world of theoretical physicists – which we are also a part of – there is something that may indeed really last forever and could potentially even outlast our own universe. 

Given the current experimental evidence obtained so far, theoretical physicists has reached a current consensus that the lower limit for the lifetime of a proton – which forms part of the atomic nucleus of ordinary baryonic matter – is described to be at least 100 billion trillion times longer than the age of our universe – which current experimental observations pegged it to be about 13.8 billion years old. For almost 40 years, Scientific American magazine has published several articles on various experiments – some of them are even elaborately grandiose in scale – to determine the absolute lifetime of a proton. 

In particle physics, proton decay is a hypothetical form of radioactive decay in which a proton decays into lighter subatomic particles, such as a neutral pion and a positron. As far as particle physics knows, proton decay has yet to be observed and there is currently no experimental evidence that proton decay even occurs.
In the Standard Model, protons – a type of baryon – are theoretically stable because their baryon number is conserved, that is under normal circumstances; however there is that “chiral anomaly”. Therefore protons will not decay into other particles on their own because they are the lightest – and therefore the least energetic – baryon. 

Some theoretical studies beyond the Standard Model, grand unified theories (GUTs) explicitly break the baryon number symmetry, allowing protons to decay via the Higgs Particle, magnetic monopoles or new X-bosons. Proton decay is one of the few observable effects of the various proposed grand unified theories. To date, all attempts to observe a proton’s decay so far have failed, but some theoretical physicists have proposed that the continuously accelerating expansion of our own universe since the Big Bang might affect the apparent stability of the proton – maybe perhaps 100 billion years from now.