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.