magnesium is the alkaline earth element found in sparklers

Everyday Uses of Alkaline Earth Metals

July 22, 2020 - Emily Newton

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We use different types of metal every single day, from the frame of our cars to the silverware we typically use to eat lunch. Many of these metals fall into different families on the periodic table. Today, we’ll be talking about alkaline earth metals. What are alkaline earth metals, and where might you encounter them in your daily life?

Properties of the Alkaline Earth Metals

First, what are alkaline earth metals?

Late in the 18th century, any substance that could not be dissolved in water and did not burn or melt in regular fire was referred to as an ‘earth.’ From there, they were classified by their resemblance to other known materials. Alkaline earth metals had a striking resemblance to other known alkalis, such as soda ash or potash, so they were classified as such.

Later, it was discovered that the elements being classified as alkaline earth metals were actually oxides of those metals — the metal atoms were combining with oxygen.

The alkaline earth metals, in order of abundance, are:

Some Degree of Commerical Use No Commerial Use
Calcium Radium
Magnesium
Barium
Strontium
Beryllium

Calcium is the fifth most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, coming in behind magnesium, silicon, iron, and aluminum.

Physical and Chemical Properties of Alkaline Earth Metals

What sets alkaline earth metals apart from other metals on the periodic table?

First, though classified as metals, these elements are fairly soft and malleable. They have lower melting and boiling points than other metals but are still strong when compared to other, similar elements. The earth metals are also highly reactive in their pure state, which is why they are not usually found in this state in nature.

These earth metals also burn in a variety of different colors. Calcium and radium both burn red, while beryllium and magnesium burn white and barium burns a bright green.

In the future, if element 120 is added to the periodic table, it will most likely be a new form of alkaline earth metal.

Real-Life Applications

Where do you think you encounter alkaline earth metals in daily life? The answers might surprise you. We’ll start with the most abundant element — calcium.

Calcium

Researchers didn’t isolate calcium until 1808, even though it’s the 5th most abundant element on the planet. Calcium gets its name from the Latin word calx, which means lime. It loves reacting with water and oxygen, so you’ll never find pure elemental calcium in nature. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. Most of us are familiar with calcium’s chemical compounds.

Uses for Calcium

  • Nutrition: Getting enough calcium in your diet is necessary to ensure bone health. It occurs naturally in foods like milk and other dairy products. You will also find it as an added ingredient in other foodstuffs.
  • Over-the-counter medications: Calcium carbonate is a common compound of this element, and you’ll find it everywhere — from whitening toothpaste to antacid tablets.
  • Glass and paper: When you heat calcium carbonate and mix it with water, it becomes something called slaked lime, which is essential for manufacturing products like glass and paper.

Magnesium

Scientists first isolated elemental magnesium in 1831. Its name comes from Magnesia, a district in Greece that housed large concentrations of this alkaline earth metal. Today, most of the magnesium you see in supplements or other applications comes from the oceans. A cubic kilometer of seawater contains roughly 1.3 billion kilograms of magnesium.

Uses for Magnesium

  • Nutrition: Magnesium is another nutrient necessary for keeping yourself healthy. You’ll find it in things like nuts, spinach, black beans and tofu.
  • Automotive and aerospace construction: When you mix magnesium with zinc and aluminum, the resulting alloy is strong and lightweight. It is ideal for applications in the automotive and aerospace industries.
  • Fireworks, flashbulbs and fire starters: Magnesium burns hot and fast and creates a brilliant white flame. This fierce burning makes it a popular choice for fireworks and other pyrotechnics, as well as firestarters for camping. It used to be common in camera flashbulbs before digital alternatives became more commonplace.

Barium

Barium dates back to 1808, but it’s another element that loves to react with oxygen and water. If you ever find it in nature, it’s usually in the form of barium oxide or barium hydroxide. Barium gets its name from the Greek barys, which means heavy. It’s not an element you generally want to encounter in your daily life — barium compounds are toxic to human beings.

Uses for Barium

  • X-rays: Barium is toxic, but if your doctor needs to take a clear picture of your digestive tract, you may find yourself swallowing some barium sulfate. It doesn’t dissolve in water, so it’s safe to consume and absorbs x-rays, creating a more detailed picture of your insides.
  • Fireworks: Barium is another popular choice for fireworks because it burns a brilliant green color. You may also find it in signal flares because of its bright and colorful flame.
  • Vacuum tubes: Barium is a “getter.” It’s useful during the construction of vacuum tubes because it bonds so readily to other elements. It helps assemblers remove any trace gasses from the interior of the vacuum tubes before sealing.

Strontium

Strontium dates back even further than some of the other elements on our list. Scientists first discovered it in 1790 — mostly by accident. Adair Crawford was mixing the element witherite with hydrochloric acid. Instead of getting the results he wanted, he accidentally discovered strontium. It doesn’t exist in its pure form in nature, and today mostly comes from celestite and strontianite.

Uses for Strontium

  • Fireworks: This element is another popular firework chemical. Strontium, when ignited, burns bright red, making it ideal for signal flares and fireworks.
  • Magnets: Strontium is sometimes combined with iron to turn the element into a powerful magnet. Strontium magnets are resistant to losing their magnetic charge.
  • Old televisions:Before the popularity of flat-screen TVs, most of the harvested strontium found its way into producing television tubes. If you’ve still got an old cathode-ray tube (CRT) television lying around, you might have some strontium in your home.

Beryllium

Beryllium gets its name from the element beryl, where it occurs naturally. Scientists were trying to figure out what element they saw in both beryl and emeralds, and eventually, they found beryllium. Some chemists used to call it glucinum, meaning “sweet,” because beryllium and some of its compounds have a sweet taste. Spoiler alert — don’t try this. Beryllium is poisonous.

Uses for Beryllium

  • Alloys: Beryllium is frequently alloyed with other metals to improve their characteristics. When mixed with copper, it creates a wear-resistant beryllium bronze that prevents sparks in areas where flammability might be an issue.
  • Space shuttles: Hot-pressed beryllium was a major component in space shuttle construction, making up the windshield frame in the crew module as well as other components.
  • Race cars: Copper beryllium alloys were popular for building Formula One race cars until F1A banned it in the early 2000s. Officially, they blame it on the fact that the element is toxic. Still, fans speculate that Ferrari had the material banned because they couldn’t adapt it for their racers.

Radium

Marie Curie, one of the most famous chemists of all time, discovered radium in 1898 along with polonium. She extracted uranium from a material called pitchblende. She found that it was more radioactive after she removed the uranium, which led to the discovery of radium and polonium. Radium is so radioactive that the lab notes Marie Curie took are still too contaminated to handle without protective gear. Hopefully, you’ll never come into contact with radium.

Uses for Radium

  • Luminous paint: For many years, radium-based paints were popular for watch faces and instrument clusters. In the 1920s, the “Radium Girls” — watch-painters who used radium paint — would lick their paintbrushes and consume small amounts of radium. Many of them contracted bone cancer and other medical conditions as a direct result.
  • Cancer treatment: Radium produces radon gas. Finding radon in your home is dangerous, but in controlled circumstances, it could treat some forms of cancer though it isn’t as common as it once was.

Where have you encountered alkaline earth metals in your daily life? Hopefully, radium wasn’t one of the ones you encountered, but many of the others help to subtly shape our lives in ways that most of us don’t even think about. The next time you hop on a flight, think about the magnesium in the airplane parts or the calcium in the glass of milk the flight attendant hands you. Alkaline earth metals are all around us — you just have to know where to look.

This article originally published 02/01/2018. We updated it on 07/22/2020 to expand the section of Real Life Applications with more in-depth uses of alkaline earth metals.

Revolutionized is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commision. Learn more here.

Author

Emily Newton

Emily Newton is a technology and industrial journalist and the Editor in Chief of Revolutionized. She enjoys reading and writing about how technology is changing the world around us.

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