Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Countdown to Opening Night by the Elements: Number 12

Fearless seems to have an inexhaustible number of matches of elements of the periodic table to Washington Capitals.  What does he have for number 12?


When you go outside and look up into the trees on a spring day, you can see the green shoots of leaves emerging after a tree’s long winter slumber.  The green color you see, as any child learns in earth science class, is a product of “chlorophyll.”  It is a complex molecule that is essential to life on earth, allowing plants to absorb energy from light and convert it to chemical energy (photosynthesis).  Chemically, it is a long-chain molecule with a “chlorin ring” at one end.  At the center of this chlorin ring is a metal ion – Magnesium (strictly speaking Mg++), which binds to nitrogen on either side of it.

Magnesium, at the heart of one of the most important naturally occurring chemicals on earth, and it is born in the superheated furnace of stars as the elements helium and neon are fused.  However, it is not found naturally on earth as a free element.  It can be produced as a free element, but in a process called “passivation,” it reacts in air to produce a thin oxide coating that renders it “passive.”  A good thing, too, because magnesium is an extremely reactive element.  It is one of the reasons you will find it in flares (do not stare into the light).

It shares a history with manganese, it being named for a region of Greece called “Magnesia.” 

Despite it being one of the lightest elements, it is a workhorse, even among the metals.  It is often used as a component in aluminum alloys, in iron and steel production (to remove sulfur), and in the production of titanium.  It has been used in aircraft (although it had a nasty habit of contributing to the ignition of engine crankcases in flight), race cars (mainly to reduce weight while maintaining structural strength), advanced consumer electronics (tablet devices, smart phones, cameras…again, for light weight, structural strength), water heaters (where it gives itself up to protect the vessel from corrosion), fertilizers, antacids, and laxatives.  In addition to its role in photosynthesis, it is present in the synthesis of chemicals involved in energy transfer, and it essential to nucleic acid chemistry, the manufacture of DNA and RNA in the body.

Magnesium… a chemical one pays little attention to, but one that is critical for the functioning of plant and animal organisms, one that shares a history with another, similarly named chemical, one that is an unsung workhorse among the elements.  Sounds like a guy who gets little attention but attends to the little things that help make a hockey team go, a player who shares a history with a teammate who is the Capital that most closely resembles that element with the similar history (the players shared a championship in Hershey in 2009 and 2010), a workhorse who plays the role of grinder and occasional pest.

Magnesium….the “Jay Beagle” of the elements of the periodic table.