If you’re looking for a material that spans from common, household uses to obscure and funny sounding ones, Boron is the element for you. This unusual member of the periodic table has a hard time deciding exactly what it wants to be, but perhaps that indecision is what makes it so useful.
Not Quite This or That
In its isolated form Boron is known as a metalloid, which means that it has properties which are both metallic and nonmetallic. For this reason, it manifests as a sort of amorphous powder (that looks a lot like dirt) on its own.
Boron can be found in great abundance in all sorts of items with which people interact daily. In fact, Boron is even critical to plant cell health, as it helps maintain their walls. Humans ingest a couple of milligrams of Boron everyday through food.
An Overdue Discovery
Boron was first recognized by French and English scientists in 1808, but they were unsuccessful in attempts to isolate it completely; their results were highly impure forms of the material. The first isolation of Boron came more than 100 years later in 1909, but even then it was only 99% pure (the highest level of purity that can be achieved).
Despite this relatively recent isolation, humans have been interacting with Boron compounds for centuries. Borax (sodium borate decahydrate) is one of these most recognizable compounds, and it can occur naturally when salt lakes evaporate; borax was used by Arabic goldsmiths and silversmiths all the way back in the eighth century.
This early use is obvious in Boron’s name. It is derived from the Arabic word “buraq” meaning white. Technically, this term originally referred to Borax specifically and not Boron on whole, but since Borax was the earliest understanding of this member of the periodic table, it stands to reason that their names would be similar.
Boron is rather abundant, but the largest source in the world occurs in the Mojave Desert in the United States. 100% isolated Boron has never been achieved, but high purity Boron (a single percent away from isolation) can be created by reducing the impure compounds with hydrogen on heated filaments.
Less pure extractions can be done more simply with a wide range of Boron compounds—you can even complete this sort of extraction at home.
From Fiberglass to Flare Guns
Boron and its compounds are important components in all sorts of everyday items, from fiberglass (like the kind people use for insulating their homes) and flare guns (Boron produces a green flare) to rocket fuel and soap.
Boron, and more specifically Borax, is commonly used to create a strange fluid called Oobleck, a common science experiment among middle schoolers. The fluid can be created by mixing Borax with glue; it is rather unusual in that it is a fluid when it is poured, but becomes a solid under pressure. This is known as a non-Newtonian fluid.
Perhaps more striking than any manufactured function of Boron is the fact that plants simply could not exist without it. Because Boron is integral to the cell health of all plants, it facilitates this organic life. In this sense, human beings would also not exist without Boron, as no plants translates to no food.
Boron is the sort of ever-present material that gets taken for granted precisely because it is so abundant, but this complicated element does life on Earth all sorts of favors, even if they aren’t immediately visible.