There are 118 chemical elements that run from gases to liquids to solids. Some of them we’ll never run across in our lives because of how rare or dangerous they are. Others are so common we barely give them a second thought. But some of the elements that make up our world have far more bizarre qualities than most people would ever imagine.
Fluoride in water and toothpaste are things everyone takes for granted. Nothing wrong with good ol’ fluoride, right? Well, unless you’re a conspiracy theorist. And some of that stems from the nature of fluorine. This is the most reactive element on the periodic table and it can be some dangerous stuff. Expose most metals and even water to fluorine gas and you’re creating an extremely bright flame as a result.
There are only four elements that fluorine doesn’t have a serious reaction with. Expose it to hydrogen and you get hydrofluoric acid. That is incredibly hard to store because, unlike many acids, it’ll eat through glass. Fluorine can even damage diamonds.
You won’t find fluorine in its pure state in nature because it reacts to everything. Instead, it needs to be refined from other compounds. Arguably one of the most bizarre things about fluorine is how common it is on Earth. It’s the 13th most common element in the Earth’s crust but almost unheard of in the universe at large, forming in about 400 parts per billion out in the stars.
If your car has mag wheels on it, they not only look great, they’re made with a magnesium alloy. If you don’t have mag wheels, don’t worry, your body is riddled with magnesium. Magnesium is part of around 300 biochemical reactions that occur in our bodies all the time. Blood glucose, bone health, nerve function, your heart and immune system all need magnesium to function properly. Even plants need it. Magnesium is the core of every chlorophyll molecule, which allows for photosynthesis in plants. So it’s cool, right?
Magnesium will burn incredibly easily in air. Add a flame and the metal will blaze away. If it gets out of hand and you try to put it out with water, you’re going to regret it. The magnesium will break down the water and produce hydrogen gas, which just makes the magnesium burn even more. Even when there’s no oxygen present, magnesium will continue to burn. Your only hope for putting it out is to smother it with sand.
Phosphorus is one of the strangest elements simply because of the odd duality of it. You need phosphorus in your body to be healthy. But at the same time, if you let white phosphorus reach body temperature, it will catch on fire.
The name phosphorus comes from the Greek “bringer of light” because white phosphorus actually glows. But again, get it too warm, and it’ll burst into flames. That means if you have a chunk, it will explode. And that’s why it’s been useful in fireworks and explosive devices. If you want to make a particularly devastating weapon to literally scorch the earth, phosphorus is the key. Things like phosphorus grenades have been used extensively in wars. They can be used to produce massive smoke bombs or they can burn so hot they will burn up all the oxygen in an enclosed space, so even if the people inside aren’t burned, they’ll suffocate.
Despite the destructive nature of the element, you’ll find it in your very DNA. It’s needed for bone and muscle health. That said, exposure to pure phosphorus is very damaging. People who used to work at match factories would sometimes come down with a condition called Phossy Jaw. Victims would slowly develop serious and deadly deformities of their jaw bones as the phosphorus accumulation in their bodies. And, in the dark, their gums would glow.
If ever there was an element designed for party tricks, it was gallium. While it looks like any other silvery metal at room temperature, people long ago learned that gallium is a solid in much the same way chocolate is. Get it a little warm and it’s all over. Gallium melts at just under 30 degrees Celsius, which is a hot but not crazy hot summer’s day. Your body temperature is 37 degrees Celsius, so you can liquify the metal in the palm of your hand. This has led to more than a few YouTube videos of people stirring hot liquid with gallium spoons that just melt away.
Despite the low melt point, gallium won’t boil until it reaches 2,229 degrees. That makes it pretty useful for high temperature thermometers. It’s one of those unusual elements that has no purpose in biology whatsoever. No animal or plant life needs it at all. Still, it can be useful in that it seems to be good at fighting off certain kinds of cancer.
Krypton gas doesn’t just have a cool name, which actually has nothing to do with Superman. It’s also been a very sneaky little element that the modern world uses for spying in ways most of us would never imagine.
As a gas, krypton is in the atmosphere. It has a halflife of about 10.7 years, so it doesn’t stick around forever, but long enough that you can get a feel for how much should be in the atmosphere at any given moment. And at some point early in the nuclear arms race, we learned a very important fact about krypton. It’s a waste product of nuclear reactors.
In the early 2000s, the American government was able to use krypton as an indicator that North Korea was developing nuclear arms. They had used this very same technique after the Second World War. By accounting for their own krypton production, Americans were able to measure the worldwide levels of krypton in the atmosphere and determine there was too much of it. That was able to tell them that the Russians were developing their nuclear weapons and even gave them a rough idea of how successful they were at doing it.
If you’ve ever gone to a gem and mineral show, you have probably seen bismuth samples. It forms metallic crystalline structures that are colorful, like an oil slick. You may also recognize the name from over-the-counter medications like Pepto Bismol. Bismuth is the “bis” part of that name.
Less well known about bismuth is the interesting way it reacts with magnets. You know iron is a magnetic metal and a magnet will stick right to it. Bismuth is the opposite. That doesn’t mean it’s not magnetic, it’s actually diamagnetic. It repels magnets by creating an opposing magnetic field rather than just having no reaction like copper might. If you take two pieces of bismuth and put a magnet between them, the magnet will actually levitate. It’s a very cool phenomenon and makes a cool party trick if you ever want to try it out.
One of the reasons gold and platinum have long been valued is the fact they are very corrosion resistant. While copper and iron will fade over time, gold and platinum can retain their lustre for a long time. You really need to work at ruining those metals, but it can be done. Toss some boiling nitric acid [HNO3] and hydrochloric acid [HCl] on either one and you’ll see it go to work. Do the same to iridium and what happens? Not a damn thing.
Iridium is one of the most rare elements in the world but it is also the most corrosion resistant. Damn near nothing can eat through it. Things that would reduce other metals to a heap of bubbling goo just wash away from iridium.
This is due in part to its incredible density. Next to osmium, it’s the densest element there is. But because we can only produce a few tons of it per year, it’s exceedingly rare. And hey, there’s also evidence that the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs was laced with it, so it has that going for it, too.
Named for Marie Curie, it should come as no surprise that curium is radioactive. What is surprising is just how radioactive this stuff is. When you turn the lights out, curium glows purple. It will boil water if you try to immerse it. It produces alpha, beta and gamma radiation, making it a real threat to keep around. For that reason, it’s rarely ever produced on purpose and when it is it’s done in strict lab conditions.
You can make curium by bombarding plutonium with uranium in a nuclear reactor. So it’s not something you’re likely to make by mistake. There are about 20 isotopes of curium, some of which have half lives of several million years. It’s literally the most radioactive element science is able to isolate right now.
Few elements have a tale to tell like antimony. This element has seen some things and none of them were good. Silvery grey and metallic, antimony is used today in electronics and batteries. In the past, they used it in cosmetics. But it also had one horrible use that kept coming back. Antimony was an old-timey laxative. And it was reusable.
Back in the Middle Ages, they blamed a lot of health issues on imbalances. Too much blood or phlegm was the root of a lot of issues. If you had bad humors, you needed to get rid of them. And that meant you needed to purge yourself. Enter the antimony laxative.
The human body does not agree with antimony at all because it’s fairly toxic. So in that sense, it’s very effective. Your guts will try to get antimony out of them very fast. In an effort to expel these bad humors, an antimony pill was ingested, and you’d send it on a magical journey through your intestines.
Because it was metal, it came out the other side of that mystic quest relatively unscathed. And people at the time, being frugal as they were, they’d just hunt it down and clean it off so they could use it again later. Word is that one pill would be used by a whole family and passed down through the generations because waste not want not.
It’s hard not to consider copernicium one of the most bizarre substances in the world for a strangely large number of reasons. To rattle them off quickly, copernicium was first created in 1996 and has only ever existed in a lab. It has a half-life of about 29 seconds. It has only ever existed in incredibly small quantities. It’s believed, but not confirmed, that it’s a metal. It’s also believed it would be either a gas or a volatile liquid at room temperature. That’s a lot of weirdness for one element.
When we say it existed in small quantities, we’re not exaggerating. When scientists first created it, they bombarded lead-208 with zinc-70 nuclei. That made a single atom of copernicium. That’s part of the reason we don’t know if it’s a metal or if it would be a gas at room temperature. Hard to tell from one atom.The atom decayed almost immediately.