Elemental Creatures

 A little bit more periodic trivia for you. Two of the elements on the periodic get their names from folkloric creatures. (cue Peer Gynt)

Cobalt (element 27) is not found on its own in nature, only in mineral ores.

We use it now in steel alloys to make tougher drill bits and milling machine parts.

It has been used unknowingly since ancient times to color paint and glass. The ancient Egyptians used it along with iron and copper to get lapis blue glass. It’s also been found in blue and white Chinese porcelains from the 8th or 9th centuries. So it’s been around, just hiding out of sight under the blues. It creates a stable pigment that was once attributed to the element bismuth. (Cobalt blue wasn’t actually called cobalt blue until 1777.)

Maxfield Parrish, Reveries. (With cobalt blue.)

Chemistry and quilting, I’d love to see the finished project!

The artist Maxfield Parrish used cobalt blue in his rich, luminous skyscapes- some people call cobalt blue Parrish blue thinking of his skies. (I admit that I tend to do it, especially when looking at the outline of dark trees against a rich sky. Parrish just comes to mind first.)

Don’t be too distracted by the color.

Cobalt is needed for life in minute quantities but in a larger volume can be poisonous. People grinding the pigment had to be careful not to breathe it in, and when the ore was first found it was called kobald ore, German for goblin or sprite ore, because it was so problematic. It looked like silver ore but seemed to be poor in metal and gave off poisonous fumes containing arsenic when smelted. Cobalt itself was finally isolated in the 1730s and named after the troublemaking kobalds.

Kobalds are creatures from Germanic folklore. No one seems to agree on where they (myth or creature) come from originally. The stories go back at least to the 13th century and may be vestiges of Nordic mythology. The underground kobalds blamed for the evil temper of the ore seem to be folkloric cousins to knockers and bluecaps. They’re normally imagined as child sized old men, sometimes otherwise normal and sometimes as hunched over and ugly.

Cobalt’s neighbor on the periodic table, Nickel (element 28) is also named after a troublemaker.

In medieval Germany miners found reddish ore with a green crust that looked like copper ore, but from which they couldn’t get any copper. They blamed the Nickel (word history issue alert: some sources say it’s as in Old Nick or the Devil and others translate it as a term for goblin) for their trouble, and called the ore Kupfernickel. In the 1700s the chemist studying the ore got an unknown white metal which he named after the troublesome spirit.

Hall of the Mountain King

At first kupfernickel was the only source of nickel, but luckily other sources had been found by the time it was in demand for steel production at the end of the 19th century. Today nickel-iron alloys are used in the hottest parts of jet engines because they stay strong even in intense heat.

The first thing most people in the US think of when they hear nickel is $.05. Nickel has been used in minting coins from different countries since the start of the 19th century. It’s gotten too expensive to use much in coinage any more, and the US is one of the few countries that still has a fair amount of nickel in lower denomination coins. The nickel used in making a nickel coin is worth about 90% of the coin’s face value. (Normally the metal is worth far less-old pennies are the big exception. Nickel’s other neighbor, copper, is worth enough that the old copper pennies from before 1982 are worth over twice their face cost in metal!)

Nickel can still be a problem. A lot of people are touch sensitive to it and can get red and itchy skin from contact. Because of its resistance to corrosion, it used to be used in jewelry intended for pierced ears. (It’s nickel that helps put the stainless in stainless steel.)

Most of Earth’s nickel is in our planet’s inner and outer cores. Like cobalt, nickel is mostly found in its native state in meteoric iron. Which is in itself possibly a good example of our core’s composition.

I’ll confess, I don’t generally work with any metals containing nickel, but I make an exception for meteorites! As I’d mentioned with meteorites before, the nickel in iron-nickel meteorites helps keep them stable and usable. P1110545-edit-blog

Another fun fact about these elemental neighbors and their matching names-the chemist who discovered nickel (Axel Cronstedt) was a student of George Brandt, who discovered cobalt. So student and teacher’s discoveries sit next to each other on the periodic table, and both elements are named after the creatures blamed for the miners’ frustrations!

They even caused frustration for chemists later on. Most elements get heavier as you move across the periodic table from left to right. In the 1860s this was considered one of the universal laws of nature, but laws don’t have exceptions and cobalt is slightly heavier than nickel! Theoretical and experimental chemists bickered for years over a few pair weight reversals in the periodic table.


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Filed under Historical Facts and Trivia, Natural Science

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