Chapter 5: Elements in Times of War

By: Gideon White


There were many elements listed in this chapter. Toxic gasses, Chlorine (Cl) and Bromine (Br), and metals, Molybdenum (Mo), Tungsten (W), Scandium (Sc), Tantalum (Ta), and Niobium (Nb) were all mentioned. Chemical warfare is a tactic that is millenniums old. The ancient Greeks were the first to try. They failed. As did the Spartans. This early failure inhibited its progression until around WWI. A ban was placed on chemical weapons in 1899 but, quite ironically, all of the countries that signed that treaty broke it (5, 81). Bromine was the gas used in the earliest weapons as it could easily reduce a grown man to searing tears. The Germans followed the French and, with the help of Fritz Haber, developed much more effective chlorine-based gas weapons over the next two wars. He used Osmium as a catalyst (5, 83). He also manufactured Zyklon A which was the precursor to Zyklon B which the Germans used in the Holocaust.

Metals were now 'the thing' to use in warfare. The Germans had Big Berthas that could launch shells at 9 miles an hour. The explosives that were required to launch them at this speed decimated the gun after only a few shots. Molybdenum and Tungsten were the go-to elements now because they strengthened the metal so much that Big Bertha could take the cruel beating the explosives dished out (5, 88). In the present, Tantalum and Niobium are the sought after elements because of their use in small handheld electronic devices like cell phones. The demand for these metals (and tin) has caused the Democratic Republic of Congo (where they are mainly found) to erupt into wars, violence, and bloodshed. 60% of the world's supply of Tin, Tantalum, and Niobium is found in DR Congo. One might think the periodic table boring. It is. BUT the history behind the elements and how they are arranged is anything but boring. It is bloody.


Refer to the picture and description below and to the left for basic information on Bromine. It is named after the Greek word for stench, bromos, because it has such a foul reek (Thomas Jefferson, The Periodic). It occurs in nature as a bromine salt (Lenntech, Periodic). For discovery Information, refer to the picture below and in the middle. Bromine was first produced by a young chemistry student named Carl Löwig. When he showed his professor the smelly red liquid he had produced, his professor realized that Löwig had discovered a new element and he encouraged him to keep producing it so that they could study it in depth (Thomas Jefferson, The Periodic). It is found in many everyday objects. Flameproofing agents, silver bromide (a chemical used in photography), and leaded gasoline are but a few.


Osmium can be found free in nature or as osmiridium, which is mainly mined from nickle mines. It can be used in the nibs of fountain pens, electrical contacts, it's also a chemical catalyst, as well as needles. Osmium was discovered by Smithson Tennant in 1803, London, England. It's name comes from the Greek word, osme, meaning "a smell." Osmium is the rarest of all the elements in the periodic table, is extremely toxic in its pure form, and is the densest of the naturally occurring elements (Royal, Periodic).


Chlorine is not typically found free; it is easily found in common table salt (NaCl) as well as extracted from ocean brine (which is a (virtually) neverending source of salt). It can be used in many household items: a solvent, plastic producer, disinfectant, anesthetic, oxidizing agent, and, when chemical warfare was 'the thing,' as a weapon in WWI. Chlorine was discovered by Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1774 in Sweden. It is the second lightest halogen as well as the second most common halogen. Pure Chlorine (as shown below) is a yellow-green color and is highly toxic. The name, Chlorine, come from the Greek word, chloros, meaning yellow-green (Royal, Periodic).


Molybdenum is most often found in a compound with Oxygen and Lead and also in a compound called Wulfenite. It is used in things like pigments, circuit board inks, and electrodes. It is also used in an alloy to strengthen different types of metal because it is noncorrosive and has a high melting point. Like Chlorine, Molybdenum was discovered by Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1778 in Sweden. It is named after the Greek word for lead, molybdos. One of its interesting characteristics is its high melting point that makes it very hard to melt, reform, change, destroy, etc. (Royal, Periodic).


Tungsten is typically found in a compound called wulfenite (PbMoO4) and one called sheelite (CaWo4). Tungsten is a must-have for tools. Tungsten carbide is very hard so it's perfect for screwdrivers, drills, power saws, etc. It has a very high melting point so it's often used in alloys in furnaces. Tungsten was discovered in 1783 in Vergara, Spain by Juan and Fausto Elihuyar. It was originally called wolfram (like the programming language), but in Swedish, the words 'tung' and 'sten' mean heavy metal, so it was renamed to Tungsten. It is the heaviest element (out of all of them) that plays a big role in biology, surprisingly. An interesting fact is that, out of all the pure metals, it has the highest melting point (6,191°F) (Royal, Periodic).


It is almost never found uncombined, but it's found in minute amounts of over 800 different compounds of minerals. It is usually 'mined' (or just taken) as a waste product of Uranium refining. It is often used as a substitute in aluminium alloys because of their very similar densities. (Scandium has a higher melting point). This alloy is used n baseball bats. It used to be used in Russian fighter planes as well as helicopters because they are both fairly light and strong elements. Scandium was named so because it was discovered in Scandinavia (in 1879 in Sweden by Lars Fredrick Nilson) and the Latin word for Scandinavia is scandia. There are only three mines that extract Scandium from ores. It is only naturally found in one of it's isotopic forms Scandium-45. An interesting fact is that it tarnishes to a pink or yellow color when it's exposed to air (Royal, Periodic).


Tantalum is very rarely found free. Coltan (COLumbite-TANtalite) Is what it is commonly found in. It contain many minerals such as Niobium. Tantalum is perfect for small handheld devices (like cellphones) because it can be used as an insulating layer for electrical components and it helps increase conductivity in a small volume. It is also used in prosthetic implants, electrodes, rocket nozzles, and turbine blades because it has high resistance to corrosion and it makes a strong alloy. Tantalum was disvocveres by Anders Gustav Ekeberg 1802 in Sweden. The name, Tantalum, comes from the Greek 'anti-hero,' Tantalus. It has the fourth highest melting point of any element (5,468°F). Tantalum's high bio-compatibility makes it perfect for almost any medical implant, too (Royal, Periodic).


Niobium is so similar to Tantalum that they are often thought to be the same element. They can both be extracted as a waste product of tin mining, and they are both typically found in the compound Coltan. It is a superconductor, and it is even used in the superconducting magnets that are used in particle is used as an alloy for many metals (it is best used at lower temperatures). Niobium was discovered by Charles Hatchett in England in 1801. It was originally called Columbium because it was found in the mineral Columbite, but it was renamed Niobium after Niobe, the Greek mythological character. The only, known, stable form of Niobium is Niobium-93. Something cool about it is that it has the highest magnetic penetration depth out of all the other elements.


Chemists use the periodic table to make all technological advancements. The elements, compounds, products, creations, weapons, tools, medical supplies, etc. the periodic table aids us in developing are neither good nor bad. They simply are. It is what we do with them that assigns them a moral description. They could be used to save millions. They could also be used to commit genocide.


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  • Los Alamos National Library. (2016). The Periodic Table of The Elements. Retrieved January 13, 2016, from
  • The Encyclopedia of Earth. (January 19, 2008). Molybdenum. Retrieved from January 14, 2016, from
  • Minerals Education Coalition. (2016). Tungsten. Retrieved January 14, 2016, from
  • Chemicool. (2016). Scandium. Retrieved January 14, 2016, from
  • Royal Society of Chemistry. (2016). Periodic Table. Retrieved January 15, 2016, from