Boron (B) is the fifth chemical on the periodic table of elements, located on the top right next to carbon. It occurs naturally in several forms, including both powders and crystals, and is a necessary nutrient for all plant species.
– Chemical Composition –
Boron, to a slightly lesser extent than carbon, is capable of forming complex molecular chains. This means that it can occur naturally both as a brownish-coloured powder as well as in crystalline form. Boron crystals are produced through a combination of high heat and high pressure.
Chemically, however, boron is largely inert; therefore, these molecular chains do not tend to form the rich variety of organic compounds which can be formed with carbon or, to a slightly lesser extent, the also-nearby silicon. It can form covalent compounds by surrendering three ions to gain a positive charge, such as boron oxide (with oxygen), boron trifluoride (with fluorine), and several compounds with hydrogen and carbon.
In nature boron comes in two stable isotopes: boron-11, with five neutrons in its atomic nucleus, and boron-10, with just four. There are also a number of highly radioactive isotopes which can be created artificially, but are not found in nature.
– Sources and Discovery –
Boron is rare on Earth, representing only a tiny fraction of a percent of the rock beneath our feet. Those mineral deposits from which it can be extracted are difficult to find, and boron production is currently dominated by just two countries, the United States and Turkey. In both cases, pure boron has never been found; instead, it is extracted from minerals such as colemanite, tincal, and kernite (also known as rasorite).
Despite its rarity, boron has been known for thousands of years in Asia and Arabia, from which it was first introduced to Europe by the cultural explorer Marco Polo in the 1200s. It was subsequently found in trace amounts as an acid in Italy’s Florentine hot springs and Sasso mineral deposits, which allowed a low level of production during the 1800s until larger deposits were found in the United States. Currently, production of boron is increasing to record levels.
– Applications and Uses –
Most households have some boron in them somewhere. If it’s not in the fibreglass insulation (because you don’t have fiberglass insulation), it will probably be found in your laundry soap and bleach.
There are several industrial uses for boron. Because boron-10 is capable of absorbing neutrons relatively harmlessly, it can play an important role in radiation shielding in the nuclear industry and, although this is still largely theoretical, in spacecraft, where it would play the same role. The vast majority of boron production actually goes into the glass and ceramic manufacturing sectors however, because it is especially useful in making materials that can withstand high heat. Well-known brand names like Pyrex got where they are by using boron.
In addition, there are some more esoteric uses as well. Boron is one of the materials used in constructing solid lightweight structural materials, for everything from golf clubs to aircraft. One of its compounds, boron carbide, is also an important component in bullet-proof vests and other types of modern armour. More unusual boron compounds are used in building MRI machines for hospitals, mixing sanitation treatments for swimming pools, and even in jet engine ignitors.
All plants use boron as a basic component of their cell structure. This means human beings (and all other animals) regularly take in boron in their daily diets. Although it does not seem to have vital nutritional benefits, it is also non-toxic.