Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Countdown to Opening Night by the Elements: Number 28

Four weeks to go…28 days.  That brings us to Fearless’ look at chemistry for today…


Nickel is one of those elements that has been hiding in plain sight for centuries.  Often mistaken of silver (it has a similarly bright silvery white appearance), it has shown up in materials dating back more than 5,000 years.  In China 3,500 years ago, it was referred to as “white copper.”  It was not until the middle of the 18th century, though, that nickel in a pure form was produced, and that was almost by accident. 

While mining in Germany centuries ago, a red ore was found that had the appearance of copper.   The trouble was, try as they might to extract the copper from the ore, the miners found none there.  They blamed the problem on a mythical sprite – “Nickel” – and named the ore “kupfernickel (“kupfer” being a word meaning “copper”).”  It would not be until the mid-18th century that Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, a Swedish chemist, extracted nickel from the “kupfernickel,” even though what he was trying to do was extract the “kupfer.”  It was this, among other contributions to mineralogy, that resulted in Cronfeldt being memorialized in the John Joseph Griffin masterpiece, "A Practical Treatise on the Use of the Blowpipe, in Chemical and Mineral Analysis.”

These days, nickel can be found in a number of products and processes – rechargeable batteries, fuel cells, stainless steel, metal alloys requiring a corrosion-resistant element, tubing used in desalinization processes, electroplating, and as a coating agent to protect other metals.  It used to be widely used in coins, but has been replaced in large part by cheaper materials.

When found in larger pieces, nickel is not a particularly reactive material.  But in its pure form and machined into a fine powder, it can be quite reactive.  It is often found in combination with iron, and in fact it is this nickel-iron mixture that is thought to be the main constituent of the earth’s inner core.  In compounds it can take on a variety of colors – red, blue, yellow – depending on the compound.  In fact, it is often used as a pigment, lending a green color to glass.

So there it is.  An element that can be dormant chemically in most situations, but reactive in special conditions, an element that has uses that lend strength and protective qualities, yet an element that has decorative purposes quite apart from its usual applications.  Sort of like a hockey player who plays a modest role in most situations, but who can stand up for his teammates; a player who has unusual talents not normally associated with his regular play (say, as a shootout specialist); a player who was paid a modest salary, but who was replaced by cheaper players when he became a free agent; a player who has worn sweaters of red, and now of blue and yellow colors.

Nickel…the former Cap “Matt Hendricks” of the periodic table of the elements.

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