The Disappearing Spoon - Chapter 10

Take Two Elements, Call Me in the Morning

By Deanna Kilby


Since ancient times, certain elements have been used for their strange medicinal properties. Ancient Roman officers utilized the health benefits of silver by eating off of silver platters, and pioneer men would place silver coins in milk jugs to prevent souring (chp 10, pg 167). In the late 1500’s, an astronomer replaced his lost nose with a silver prosthetic; however, when archaeologists found his body, his nose was made of copper. Either element was logical, they decided, due to their antibacterial properties. Today copper is used in buildings and air conditioning ducts to prevent bacteria from festering and spreading (chp 10, pg 168).

Other elements such as vanadium, gadolinium, sulfur, and rhodium have unusual uses as well. Vanadium was discovered to be a very effective spermicide; unlike most, vanadium does not dissolve sperm cell membranes, which can harm other cells and cause infection (chp 10, pg 169). Gadolinium can be used to locate and potentially destroy cancer cells faster than normal methods. A scientist named Gerhard Domagk discovered a medicine that utilizes the properties of sulfur to kill bacteria (chp 10, pg 176). Pasteur's discovery of handedness lead William Knowles to his invention of L-dopa, a medicine to help cure brain diseases. Knowles utilized the element rhodium to do so (chp 10, pg 183). This chapter of the book The Disappearing Spoon tells the tales of six elements and involves everything from strange blue skin to left-handed atoms.

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Silver is a naturally occurring element that is most often found in silver ores such as horn silver and argentite, pure deposits being rare. It can also be found along with copper, gold, and lead in certain areas (The Periodic Table, n.d.). Silver can be found in small amounts all over the world, but the largest producers are the United States, Canada, Mexico, Chile, and Peru. In the U.S., Nevada is the leading distributor of silver (Minerals Database, n.d.). Other than silver’s famous use in jewelry, it is also used in circuit boards or for soldering due to its high conductivity. Silver is also a great reflector of light, but has a tendency to tarnish. When it bonds with oxygen and nitrogen, silver can be used to produce photographic papers (The Periodic Table, n.d.). Silver has been used since ancient times, so it is unclear who discovered it. At one time it was referred to by the Latin term Luna because of its lustrous property, but silver’s current name was derived from the Old English word seolfer (Minerals Database, n.d.). Silver has been used for its antibacterial properties since it was discovered. Roman officers and American pioneer men used silver to serve or preserve food. In the late 1500’s, an astronomer was said to have purchased a silver replacement nose for the one he had lost in a fight (chp 10, pg 167). However, if silver is ingested in large amounts it can turn human skin a sickly shade of blue. A United States Senator once went his entire term with blue skin because he had ingested water infused with silver atoms to gradually improve his immune system (chp 10, pg 172). With its many uses, it comes as no surprise that silver remains one of the most popular elements.
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The ores malachite, chalcocite, and tenorite are a few of the most common forms of naturally occurring copper. These, among others, are mainly found in Zambia, Canada, Chile, Peru, Zaire, and the United States (The Periodic Table, n.d.). Pure copper is very malleable, so usually it is only used for copper wiring, coins, duct systems, and sometimes jewelry. However, two copper alloys, bronze and brass, are very widely used. When discovered, bronze was used for weapons, tools, decor, and containers. Brass was also used for similar items, as well as coins and kettles. Today, brass is used in some screws and musical instruments. The most well known copper compound, hydrated copper sulfate, is used to kill certain plants, including algae, and is a component of blue inks (The Periodic Table, n.d.). Copper has also been used since ancient times, so it isn’t clear who discovered it. However, the Roman Empire was known to use copper, and obtained most of their supply from Cyprus. This is where copper got its name (The Periodic Table, n.d.). People began using copper in air ducts and pipes after a bacterial disease broke out in a hotel in Philadelphia. Thirty four people died from this new bacteria, which had made its home in the moist environment of the air conditioning ducts (chp 10, pg 168). Copper is used today because of its antibacterial properties; algae, fungi, and bacteria absorb copper atoms when they come into contact, which messes with their metabolisms (chp 10, pg 168). Copper is a very versatile element, with an extensive list of uses.
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Most of today’s supply of vanadium is pulled from the ore vanadinite. This element is not found by itself naturally; it is always combined with other elements. Most vanadium comes from China, Canada, South Africa, the Czech Republic, and the United States (Minerals Database, n.d.). Vanadium’s main use is in steel alloys. Alone, vanadium is fairly weak, and is only used in chemical pipes because it is corrosion resistant. However, when combined with iron it becomes very strong and is used in cars, jets, and cutting tools (The Periodic Table, n.d.). Originally, vanadium was discovered in 1801 by a Mexican chemist named Andrés Manuel del Rio. He sent his samples and a note recording his discovery to an institute in Paris. However, the note was lost and the only information Paris received was the element's likeness to chromium. Nils Gabriel Sefstrôm, a chemist from Sweden, later rediscovered the element. He named it after the Scandinavian goddess Vanadis (The Periodic Table, n.d.). Surprisingly, vanadium can also act as a spermicide. Most spermicides work by dissolving the cell membrane of the sperm, but this can harm other cells and cause infection (chp 10, pg 169). Vanadium does not do this; instead it snaps off the tails of the sperm and inhibits their ability to move. However, this element has not been used yet because scientists aren’t sure what the element will do to the human body (chp 10, pg 169).
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Gadolinium will never be found by itself in nature. It mainly exists in the two ores monazite and bastnasite along with other minor metals. China, Australia, India, Brazil, Tanzania, Greenland, and the United States are the main producers of gadolinium (Emsley, 2011; Gray, 2009; Stwertka, 2012). Gadolinium can be used in nuclear reactors as control rods because of its “ability to capture thermal neutrons”; however, they can quickly become ineffective (The Periodic Table, n.d.). When alloyed with other metals, gadolinium can be become extremely temperature resistant and be used in color televisions and microwave technology. This element was discovered by Jean Charles Galissard de Marignac. This Swiss chemist found gadolinium in the ore gadolinite, which is where the element got its name. The mineral gadolinite was named after a French chemist by the name of Johan Gadolin (The Periodic Table, n.d.). One strange characteristic of gadolinium is its strong magnetic force. This is caused because gadolinium has the highest number of unpaired electrons of any other element. Doctors believe this could be used to locate and kill cancer cells faster than normal methods (chp 10, pg 169). MRIs use magnets to locate cancer cells, and using tumor targeting agents along with gadolinium would allow doctors to see cancer cells much easier. They could also use this element to destroy tumors. Gadolinium absorbs neutrons very easily, making it radioactive; if doctors fix the element to a tumor, when it goes nuke it will destroy the tissue around it and prevent the cancer cells from regenerating (chp 10, pg 170 & 171). Though gadolinium is a minor metal, it has surprisingly important uses.
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Sulfur is found in many natural ores, including pyrite, cinnabar, and gypsum. Some sulfur is also obtained from a byproduct of refining petroleum, but most of this element is retrieved from underground deposits (The Periodic Table, n.d.). The countries that produce the most sulfur include the United States, China, Russia, and Canada (World Sulfur Producing, 2012). Most of the sulfur that is produced is turned into sulfuric acid, which is used to make gunpowder, fertilizers, natural rubbers, insecticides, batteries, and dying agents. In other compounds, sulfur can also be a weak acid and can be used as a refrigerant (The Periodic Table, n.d.). Sulfur has been used since ancient times, so it is unclear who discovered it; however, it wasn’t classified as an element until 1777 by Antoine Lavoisier. Its current name was derived from the Latin name sulphurium and the Sanskrit name sulvere (The Periodic Table, n.d.). Surprisingly, sulfur has also been used in medicine. The scientist Gerhard Domagk was working towards creating the first antibacterial drug when his daughter got a serious infection. She had tripped while holding a sewing needle and part of the needle had broken off inside her hand. She fell very ill and was not expected to live (chp 10, pg 176). Domagk had been experimenting with an industrial dye that he believed could work as a medicine. He noticed when the dye was put into a test tube of bacteria it did nothing to kill them, but the dye could cure infected mice. Taking a huge risk, he injected his daughter with the serum. The infection died off and she lived (chp 10, pg 177). This medicine, which was named Prontosil, was effective because sulfur acts strangely when around stronger elements. Sulfur will break the octet rule and expand its valence into a dozenet (chp 10, pg 178). However, Domagk’s medicine would only work inside mammals because of the chemical animal cells release when they split Prontosil. This chemical, sulfonamide, prevents bacteria from creating folic acid, which is essential for life (chp 10, pg 180).
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Rhodium is mainly found near platinum deposits and is obtained by refining platinum. It is also a byproduct of nickel production (The Periodic Table, n.d.). Rhodium is mainly found in places like South Africa, the Ural Mountains of Russia, and near Ontario, Canada. Russia and South Africa are the major exporters of this element (Emsley, 2011; Gray, 2009; Stwertka, 2012). Rhodium is mainly used in alloys with palladium and platinum; these are used in lab crucibles, furnace coils, and aircraft spark plugs. Rhodium can also be used to make catalytic converters, electrical contacts, and jewelry (The Periodic Table, n.d.). In 1803, William Hyde Wollaston discovered rhodium in platinum ore from South Africa. After he removed it, he was left with a dark red powder. This color is where the element gets its name; it is derived from the Greek word rhodon, meaning rose (The Periodic Table, n.d.). A scientist named William Knowles utilized rhodium to create L-dopa, a medicine that can help cure brain diseases. Knowles had two-dimensional molecules and needed to inflate them; however, he had to make the molecules the correct handedness for it to work (chp 10, pg 183). Knowles knew from other scientists' work that life favors left-handed molecules. If any of the L-dopa molecules were right-handed, his drug would be ineffective. The only way he could achieve total left-handedness was to inject a chiral catalyst with rhodium and let it inflate the molecules. Since both the molecules and the catalyst were big and bulky, the catalyst could only transfer the rhodium from one position, giving the molecules the correct handedness (chp 10, pg 183). Though not well-known, rhodium is an important element in technology and medicine.

Summary of the Elements

This chapter of The Disappearing Spoon delves into the strange world of medicine. Silver and copper have been used throughout history for their antibacterial properties, even interchangeably. Though good for your health, silver has been known to turn human skin blue if ingested. Vanadium is a very important step in creating aircraft and other modes of transportation, but could potentially be used as a spermicide. Though gadolinium is a minor metal and lacks a long list of uses today, doctors believe they can use it to find and kill cancer. Sulfur has gained a bad reputation for its smelly compounds, but it plays a significant role in today’s society. It is used in everything from fertilizers and batteries, to the first antibacterial drug. Rhodium was used to create a medicine to cure brain disease, as well as in aircraft spark plugs. The unusual uses of these common elements shows just how complex chemistry’s effect is in our everyday lives.


Emsley, J. (2011). Nature's Building Blocks, An A-Z Guide to the Elements, New Edition. Oxford University Press.

Gray, T. (2009). The Elements, A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe. NY: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc.

Minerals Database. (n.d.). Minerals Education Coalition. Retrieved from

Stwertka, A. (2012). A Guide to the Elements, 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press.

The Periodic Table of Elements. (n.d.). It’s Elemental. Retrieved from

World Sulphur Producing Countries. (2012, December 20). Maps of World. Retrieved from