Unlocking Fortunes from Atoms (Mar, 1932)
Unlocking Fortunes from Atoms
by Jay Earle Miller
Now that chemists have discovered the last element, it remains for the research worker to find practical uses for substances which are at present mere laboratory curiosities. Somebody will make a fortune one of these days by finding ways of using gallium, germanium, tellurium, and many other “unpopular” elements.
THE last missing thing that goes to make up our known world was detected recently. Almost simultaneously the next to the last of the ninety-two elements, which had been located last year, was isolated in the form of a metal, and isolation of the last may be expected shortly.
With those two discoveries chemistry has finished the job of determining what the earth and every animate and inanimate thing in it is made of. Ninety-two things—some gases, some metals, some chemicals of different sorts, ranging from hydrogen at one end of the table to uranium at the other—have now been found. . Last Two Elements Discovered And because uranium and several of its near neighbors are radio-active, so complex in their atomic structure that they break down spontaneously, there is reason to believe that nothing more complex than they are can exist on this particular planet, and therefore that the table is complete.
Four research specialists working at Alabama Polytechnic Institute, located No. 85, the last missing element, in sea water, in potassium bromide, and in several well-known minerals by a process of super chemical analysis.
Two of the four last year had detected No. 87, and on October 15th a professor at Cornell isolated samples of it in a substance known as samarskite, a lustrous, velvet black mineral from Norway. And within ten days after that event a prospector located deposits of samarskite in the West, so if a useful field is found for the new element the United States will have supplies of it.
Uses Must Be Found For Elements The interest of the scientific world centered in the fact that the atomic table of the ninety-two elements which, supposedly, include everything that exists in this world of ours, has finally been completed, in accordance with the prediction and rules laid down by John Dalton, an English chemist, 128 years ago.
But for the practical man the discoveries open two new roads to fortune—if a use can be found for the newly-found substances. The story of fortunes made from the identification of new elements is a long one.
Von Welsbach was just a research scientist busy exploring the unknown world of the so-called “rare earths” until he conceived the idea of utilizing zirconium, which had been discovered by Klaproth in 1789, to make the original Welsbach gas mantle. Later he found that a combination of thorium and cerium, the former discovered by Berzelius in 1828, and the latter by Klaproth in 1803, made a still better mantle.
Aluminum Once a Curiosity Aluminum, known to the ancient Romans, was just a laboratory curiosity until Charles Hall, an American, found a way to extract it from its ores on a commer cial basis and so founded the great aluminum industry.
Edison searched the world and spent thousands of dollars seeking a practical material from which to make incandescent lamp filaments, while all the time tantalum, which had been found by Berzelius in 1820, and tungsten, first isolated by K. W. Scheele in 1781, were waiting to be put to work.
For a century the world went along believing it knew everything about air, and then, in 1898, after four years’ work, Sir William Ramsay, partly with the assistance of Lord Rayleigh and partly with the aid of Travers, proved that the air was not composed entirely of oxygen and nitrogen, but contained four additional rare gases. Those discoveries gave birth to argon, neon, krypton and xenon.
Rare Gas Builds a Fortune Then came Dr. Claude, seeking a cheaper method of extracting oxygen and making acetylene gas, and found himself with so much of the rare gases on his hands that he invented the neon tube and sign industry to dispose of the waste product, and so made several fortunes.
A spectroscopic photograph taken during an eclipse of the sun in 1868 showed a new and unidentified line, and the new element was named helium. In 1903 Sir William Ramsay proved the element, which had not then been discovered on this earth, was a by-product of the disintegration of Pierre and Mme. Curie’s newly-discovered radium. Next the gas was found in American natural gas wells, and so the helium airship was born.
Those are just samples of what has been done. There is plenty of fame and fortune waiting for the man who discovers new uses for* any one of a long line of elements. An enormous amount of research work is being done trying to find new practical uses for ruthenium, one of the series of so-called “platinum metals” which all belong to the platinum family. Large stocks of ruthenium have accumulated as a by-product in the purification of other metals, and, aside from some limited use of ruthenium red as a dye in the silk industry, no commercial market has been found.
Columbium, first found in 1801 by C. Hatchett in New England, and so named tor the United States as the first element discovered in American ores, is another example of a metal waiting for a market, it is scarcely used in the arts. A steel-gray metal, nearly as hard as wrought iron, malleable and capable of being welded, it is strongly resistant to all acids save a warm and highly-concentrated solution of sulphuric acid. It belongs to an- other family of elements, the other members of which are vanadium, widely used in making special steels, and tantalum, which was used for a time for incandescent light filaments, until replaced by tungsten.
Gallium Wants a Job One of Lecoq de Boisbaudran’s discoveries—and he made several—may shortly be put to use in several fields. It is gallium, which he discovered in 1875. Because it boils at a temperature of 1,700 degrees Centigrade it has recently been suggested that this metal might make a« excellent liquid for high temperature thermometers. Other suggestions are that it be used with aluminum in alloys for optical mirrors and as cathodes in metal vapor tubes. New uses for gallium are important to industry, for it is produced in considerable quantities from the residues of the zinc smelters at Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
Germanium, which, as its name indicates was first found in Germany (by C. Winkler, in 1886), is another metal for which the Bartlesville zinc mines would like to find new uses, as it, too, is a byproduct of the zinc smelter. Germanium is a relative of tin and lead.
Rarest Elements Found by Americans The United States lagged in the discovery of missing elements, but out of seven found in the last six years the last three, and therefore the most difficult of all to find, because they were the rarest, have fallen to Americans. Until the discovery of illinium by Prof. B. S. Hopkins of the University of Illinois in 1926 no new element had first shown itself to an American investigator—columbium, while coming from a sample of New England rock, having been isolated and identified by a foreigner.
Last year Dr. Fred Allison and Edgar J. Murphy, at Alabama Poly, identified, but did not isolate, a sample of No. 87. This year they, with Prof. Edna H. Bishop and Anna L. Sommer, utilized a remarkable new method of super-chemical analysis to identify No. 85 in samples of sea water, potassium bromine and a number of well known minerals. At almost the same time Prof. Papish, at Cornell, succeeded in isolating samples of No. 87 in a substance known as samarskite, a lustrous, black mineral first found in Norway and Wyoming.
One Pint Weighs 16 Tons There is considerable evidence that far more complex elements than we know must exist elsewhere in the space, notably in the “white dwarfs” of the star system. Sirius, the dog star, for example, has a companion star which apparently consists of some substance or substances with an average weight of about 16 tons to the pint. It is impossible to conceive of anything with such a weight, yet the size of the body, and its computed attraction for Sirius shows that that must be its density.
The answer may lay in things we do not know about gravitation and magnetism. Einstein recently announced a new “fifth dimensional” system of mathematics to correlate gravity and magnetism, and it is possible that under certain conditions of temperature and pressure those factors may explain the seemingly impossible elements apparently existing in numerous stars.
Changing Lead to Gold Transmutation, the dream of the ancient alchemists who believed that all substances might be reduced to gold, seems nearer and nearer. The discovery by Ramsay that helium was a by-product of the breaking down of radium, was the first instance of transmutation in nature. Theoretically, if given sufficient power, it is possible to knock enough electrons out of the atoms of mercury, No. 80 in the periodic table, to get gold, No. 79, or to go a step farther and transmute gold to platinum, No. 78. In fact it has been claimed that the first step has been done on an experimental scale, the only drawback being that the power consumption made the resulting gold the most expensive metal ever produced.
Reaching out into the future science is speculating on the possibility that the relation of electricity to all things in nature may eventually be proven. There already is considerable evidence that disease, for example, is simply a change in the electrophoretic potential of the cells of the body. Dr. Falk, of the University of Chicago, several years ago found that the various types of pneumonia germs differed from each other according to their electrical potential, and he utilized this fact to develop a quick method of identifying the type of germ taken from any patient.
The solution of germs was placed in a tube leading across the field of a microscope, with electrical connections in either end. The current was then turned on and the observer timed the germs across the microscope field with a stop watch. The greater their negative potential the faster they were attracted to the positive electrode, and the faster they moved the more dangerous and deadly they were, because increased negative potential has something, as yet unexplained, to do with the deadliness of the disease.
Cells Made Artificially When Dr. George W. Crile, of Cleveland, announced the discovery of auto-synthetic cells last winter that same phenomenon of reaction to potential changes was observed. Dr. Crile does not claim that his manufactured cells are living bodies, the same as the cells in your body, but they do act the same, in that they grow and multiply and perform under the microscope just like any other living cell. The materials he used were the ashes of fats, proteins and body ash, mixed in distilled water.
But, getting back to the elements and their possible uses, if you want to go in for chemistry and seek a fortune where so many others have found it, the field is almost unlimited. There are two score or more of the 92 elements which remain laboratory curiosities because no one has found either a way to utilize them or a way to produce them in commercial quantities.
There is titanium, which is unique because it is the only new element ever discovered by a minister of the gospel, its discoverer having been the Rev. William Gregor, who found it in 1789. Titanium is extensively used in the paint and dye industry, and titanium white has been marketed as a rival for white lead and zinc white, but if additional uses could be found the available supply is sufficient to fill them.
Cobalt, a familiar metal widely used in steel alloys was known to the alchemists, who gave it that name because it resembles a metallic ore, yet yielded no metal when smelted. It was not until 1733 that G. Brandt first separated the pure metal, and today it is widely used in telephone and other magnets, as well as in highspeed cutting tools.
Strontium, discovered by Cruikshank in 1787, has found a wide use in separating sugar from molasses. Some of its neighbors in the table— krypton, one of the rare gases of the air, rubidium, yttrium, one of the rare earths, and zirconium, first used by Welsbach in gas mantles, all are awaiting commercial exploitation.
Molybdenum has found wide use in special steels, but the next three, masurium, ruthenium, which has already been mentioned, and rhodium are available for research work. Palladium, discovered by Wollaston in 1802, one of the platinum metals, has been used to coat mirrors, in dentistry, as a substitute for platinum in jewelry during the war, in airplane parts quite recently, and is also the element which, when added to yellow gold, turns it white, and so produces the well-known white gold of the jeweler.
Chromium Made Fortunes Chromium is an example of one of the most recent of the great fortune makers. First identified by L. N. Vauquelin in 1798, it was not isolated until 1859, and later found some use in special hard steels, for, next to the diamond, chromium is the hardest of all known things. Within the last few years the development of workable processes of chromium plating have made fortunes for several people, and threatened to practically displace the nickel plating industry—not that that has harmed nickel sales, for chromium usually is plated over a nickel plate base.
Cesium, lanthanum, praseodymium—one of the rare earths discovered by Von Welsbach before chance led him to make his fortune with the gas mantle—neodymium, another of his rare earth discoveries, illinium, samarium, europium, and gadolinium are others needing exploitation. Gadolinium is especially interesting at this time, for it is found chiefly in samarskite, the same mineral which has just yielded up element No. 87, and which has been found in Wyoming in quantities.
Selinium, discovered by J. J. Berzelius in 1817, went begging for a user for nearly a half century until a patient worker discovered that it was sensitive to light to such an extent that its electrical resistance changed when exposed to light rays. Another half century went by, and then television was born on the strength of that discovery.
Dysprosium is another element which has possibilities. Discovered in 1886 by de Boisbaudran, and first isolated in the pure state by G. Urbain in 1906, it is noted because its salts are the most magnetic of all mineral salts, and therein may lie the clue to someone’s fortune.
Hafnium, discovered at Copenhagen in 1923, rivals radium in the quick application found for it, for, within two years, several patents had been issued for its use in radio tubes, where its high melting point makes it valuable.
Smithson Tennant, an Englishman, got his name into the table of discoverers twice, once in 1803 when he discovered osmium, and again in 1804 when he isolated iridium. He didn’t live long enough to cash in, but his two discoveries have made fortunes for others. For osmium was used for some time to tip fountain pen points, and iridium is the metal used to alloy platinum and make it hard, for it is, in its pure state, too soft to be useful. The famous standard metre, preserved in the vaults of Paris as the standard of measure, consists of 90 per cent platinum and ten per cent iridium.
The University of Wisconsin has done considerable work trying to find new uses for tellurium, which was first discovered way back in 1798 by M. H. Klaproth. American miners of other metals accumulate as much as 125,000 pounds of tellurium a year as a by-product which must be isolated in purifying their ores. It was used as a crystal detector in early radio sets, and for a time found a place as an antiknock fluid for automobile engines, before tetraethyl lead displaced it there.
Cerium, one of the materials now used in gas mantles, also has a place in medicine—as have many other elements—its oxalate being used to prevent seasickness.
This list suggests just a part of the available material out of which new fortunes may be made. And it explains why chemistry is becoming an increasingly important and popular study in American universities, and why great industries are spending fortunes every year in research work.