The chemical element boron is the first element of the IIIA group on the periodic table of elements commonly known as the aluminum family. What distinguishes boron from it’s sister elements in the aluminum family is that it is not a metal at all. Following is an overview of boron including it’s history, chemical markers, and usage.
Boron was first mentioned by the Persian alchemist Rhazes around c.865 – c.925. Rhazes classified minerals into six classes one of which was the boraces family which included what we have come to know as Borax. It wasn’t until 1808 however that Humphry David an English chemist was able to begin isolating active metals that boron was on it’s way to discovery. Napolean Bonaparte who was then Emperor of France was concerned the French were falling behind in the science race and took this as a personal assault to his reputation. To remedy the problem he commissioned a pair of French chemists Joseph Gay-Lussac and Louis Jacques Thenard at great expense to reclaim the lead in the study of metals.
While Thenard and Gay Lussac did manage to separate boron from it’s compounds by heating boric acid with potassium metal it was of low quality and highly impure. It wasn’t until 1892 that another French chemist Henri Moissan was able to produce boron that was ninety eight percent pure. Still Humphry David is credited with it’s discovery.
Boron is unusual in that it takes a wide variety of physical forms which are called allotropes. Boron can occur as a red or black crystal with a varying density per each color or as a brown powder which lacks crystalline structure altogether with yet another density per cubic centimeter. The one consistent thing is that they all have a high melting point which ranges from (4,000 to 4,200 degrees Fahrenheit (2,200 to 2,300 degrees Celsius). Another consistency is that all forms of boron are able to absorb a great amount of neutrons which makes it particularly attractive as an option to control nuclear reactor rods.
Chemically speaking boron is non-soluble in water and does not readily react with acids except in powder form in which nitric acid and heated sulfuric acid will do the trick. It will also dissolve in molten metals. It carries a chemical number of 5 and is known by the symbol “B” with an atomic mass of 10.811. Boron is fairly common in nature occurring in the earths crust at a rate of ten parts per million and it never occurs as a free element. The most common minerals of boron are sodium borate, borax, colemanite, kernite, and ulexite.
The above named minerals are most commonly found in whilte crystalline deposits scattered throughout desert areas which are part of the reason the two largest producers of boron are the United States Almost all of it coming from California) and Turkey, although China and Argentina do have token outputs of the mineral.
There are two naturally occurring isotopes of boron: boron-10 and boron-11. The mass number (which is the number to the right of the element) tells us how many protons plus neutrons there are in the nucleus of each element. Boron further has three radioactive isotopes. Boron is most commonly used in making alloys, primarily ultra strong magnets which can be used in items such as particle accelerators, microphones, magnetic switches, and loudspeakers. Sodium borate is used in the manufacture of glass fiber insulation and textile glass fiber as well as borosilicate glass which is used to make pyrex glass commonly used in kitchenware or as a high quality optical lens. Boron does occur in trace amounts in the body and the lack of it is believed to be a possible contributor to arthritis as well as poor brain function and eye hand coordination although it is all still very speculative.
This was a brief overview of the history, properties, and uses of boron. As you can see this is an element we encounter in some way during our everyday life and it has gone a long way to making our lives better. Hopefully this has been useful and you know a little more about this invaluable element.