A quick glance across the periodic table of elements yields some pretty obscure-sounding elements that may seem to be outside of everyday experience. We’ve never come across a lump of francium before, and elements such as cerium and technetium sound equally exotic. In fact, the universe itself is mostly comprised of the first two elements of hydrogen and helium, and on a rocky world like Earth, silicon and oxygen are the most prevalent. But did you know that some much more exotic elements may exist in your home or neighborhood? Surprisingly, these products of modern living may even be synthetic elements, and may be radioactive. Here are the top 10 elements you didn’t know were in your home.
Atomic number 3 on the periodic table, lithium is becoming increasingly prevalent in rechargeable batteries due to its lightweight and compact nature. Lithium-ion batteries have a high electrochemical potential, because you can pack a lot of lithium atoms into a very small volume. Lithium has also found its way into the medicine cabinet after its remarkable discovery as an antidepressant by Dr. John Cade in 1949.
Boron is a common ingredient and bleach alternative in laundry detergent, as its abrasive power can make things whiter-than-white. One product, Borax, even advertises this in its branding. But did you know that the very terrestrial existence of that same elemental boron is evidence for the Big Bang? Elements such as boron aren’t created in stars; the only place this could have occurred in large quantities is during the rapid inflation of a non-homogenous universe.
Argon is an inert gas, which is to say it doesn’t react with other elements. This fact caused these elements to remain undiscovered until 1894. Argon is fairly abundant in our atmosphere, and thus makes a great preservative to extend the shelf life of materials. Potato chip bags, wine bottles, and soda cans may all contain argon to slow the process of oxidation. Argon may also be present as an insulator in insulated windows.
A halogen, bromine has no biological role and can in fact be toxic in large amounts. But until the 1970s, some soft drinks such as Mountain Dew contained bromine, and some products such as bromated vegetable oil and Ruby Red Squirt still do. Bromine is used in these products in small quantities as an emulsifier, or stabilizing agent. It is in fact even possible to have an acute reaction if you drink about, say, eight liters daily! Bromine is also an effective agent in fighting class B (liquid) fires, and thus is found in many fire extinguishers.
It’s likely some of the first-generation rechargeable batteries you ever used were nickel-cadmium batteries. These batteries have a good electrical potential close to that of alkaline and use cadmium in the anode. One drawback they always suffered, however, was “memory loss effect,” evident after successive recharges. Very occasionally, cadmium may also turn up in the pigment known as cadmium orange. Cadmium has also been looked at for potential use in solar panels, as a coating of cadmium telluride has an efficiency of greater than 10 percent.
One of the precious or coinage metals, platinum has found a modern-day use in catalytic converters for automobiles. Platinum is a room temperature catalyst, and thus allows for complete burning of hydrocarbons. As platinum is even more valuable than gold as of 2011, catalytic converters are often cut out of salvaged cars, and thieves have even been known to saw or drill out converters of parked cars just to get at the metal. Platinum may find yet another use in the automotive industry, as a proton exchange membrane for use in the fuel cells of electric cars.
First discovered by Marie Curie in 1898, this element was first hailed as a cure-all until its radioactive properties were well understood. It also found applications due to the fact that paints made of radium glow in the dark. For example, some old telephones used radium-coated numbers to make the dial glow. An alpha emitter, radium is not toxic unless ingested, as occurred in the famous case of the Radium Girls tasked with painting luminous dials during wartime industry. The workers were in the habit of licking their brushes to achieve a fine point necessary to facilitate their work, and in the course ingested large amounts of the radioactive element. Most died within years of a lawsuit filed against US Radium. Some were even said to have hair and fingernails that glowed in the dark. By the 1970s, radium’s use had been phased out in favor of chemicals such a zinc sulfide. Ironically, radium has found a modern-day medicinal use for radiation treatment for cancer therapy.
Neodymium is one of the otherwise obscure lanthanide series of elements that finds their way to the bottom two addendum rows on the standard periodic table. Combine neodymium with iron and boron, and you can create a metal alloy with some very powerful magnetic properties. These rare earth magnets are increasingly making their way into household use in electronics, cars, and even jewelry. Rare earth magnets fly together with a considerable force and often cannot be pried apart once attached.
Another lanthanide, this exotic element is used in cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors and televisions to give images a bright red color. In this capacity, europium is doped with yttrium-based phosphors. Because it emits its peak light in the red, europium is also used in trichromatic lights as an alternative to the harsh white color of compact fluorescent bulbs.
Do you know that you may have a manmade radioactive element in your home? Americium, a member of the actinide series (of which uranium and plutonium are members) is commonly used in smoke detectors. An alpha particle emitter, the 150 micrograms in smoke detectors is used to oxidize the air between two tiny electrodes, the current between which can be monitored for any interruption by intervening smoke particles. Again, being an alpha emitter like radium, americium wouldn’t be toxic unless ingested, and the plastic casing of the smoke detector is more than enough to stop the penetration of the emitted nuclei.