Sunday, September 08, 2013

Countdown to Opening Night by the Elements: Number 23

Here we go… Fearless is taking us a little off the reservation with his look at element number 23 in the periodic table and the Washington Capital to which it corresponds…


Vanadium is an element that has had a hard time becoming, well, an element.  An explanation is in order.  Vanadium is not one of those metals that have found uses in places dating back millennia.  It does not even exist on its own in nature, only in compounds.

One of those compounds was discovered by Andrés Manuel del Río, a Spanish-Mexican scientist, who subjected a substance he called “brown lead” to processes that produced vanadium compounds.  “Vanadium” was not the name he chose for the element, though.  He called it erythronium (from a Greek word for “red”) for the red color the compound took on with heating.

One might have thought that this was the start of the road to “element” status for vanadium/erythromium.  Alas, it was not.  Other scientists convinced del Río that what he had was not a new element, but merely chromium (you know...the "Martin Erat" of elements). 

It took another 25 years for Nils Gabriel Sefström (another Swedish chemist…boy, these guys were good) to isolate and confirm vanadium as an element.  It was Sefström who would give the re-discovered element its name.  It has something to do with Norse mythology and the goddess of love, beauty, and fertility (“Vanadis,” or in the original, “Freyja”).  It would be the first element to start with the letter “V,” but we just wonder if Sefström was trying to get over a bad breakup.

Anyway, even with its new “element” status, folks were not exactly storming Sefström’s lab to find vanadium to put to use.  Even today, more than 80 percent of all vanadium compounds are used in steel-making.  Most of the remaining amount produced is used in other metallurgical applications and in manufacturing sulfuric acid.  A small amount of it shows up in ceramics, glass coatings, and in pigments.

It has almost no biological importance, except in some marine environments (among algae, sea squirts), in some bacteria and fungi, and in trace amounts in some rodents and chickens. 

You could say that the discussion to this point has put vanadium in a bad light.  We prefer to think of vanadium as one of those hardy, if unsung elements.  It is relatively young in its discovery, not like iron or copper.  It makes modest contributions from its place in the periodic table, and does so in combination with other elements. 

It might be something like a young defenseman who took a little while to make the big show, who made modest contributions and played an unsung role when he was called up to the NHL.  Then, he was sent back down to the minors.  However, this year he got a little bit more of a chance, even though you would never think he really played in 25 NHL games last season.

Vanadium… the “Tomas Kundratek” of the periodic table of the elements.

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