We encounter different metals every single day, though some we may see more frequently than others. How many pieces of metal did you use this morning? The aluminum in your soda can? The stainless steel in your jewelry? The lithium and cadmium in your cell phone’s battery?
Metal is everywhere, and today we’re going to take a closer look at the basic metals. Also known as poor metals, you probably encounter quite a few of these in your daily life.
Basic Metals Properties
The basic metals sit to the right of the transitional metals on the periodic table, which also earns them the name post-transitional metals. This group includes:
Aluminum is the third most common element on the planet, coming in behind oxygen and silicon. Gallium, lead, tin and thallium come next, followed by indium and bismuth.
Occasionally, you will see zinc, cadmium and mercury classified as basic metals, even though they belong to the transitional metals category. You may also see germanium and antimony included in this group as well, even though these elements are classified as metalloids.
Chemical and Physical Traits
Most basic metals share many of the same characteristics. They’re general solid under most conditions, though they’re softer than transitional metals and have lower boiling and melting points. Gallium’s melting point is so low that it will melt in the palm of your hand!
Each of these metals is also very malleable, or easily shaped, and most tend to be good conductors of both heat and electricity. They are the most electronegative metals, meaning they tend to acquire electrons and form negative ions, but the least reactive of all the metals.
Where might you encounter these elements in your daily life? Let’s go through the list.
Aluminum is a lightweight metal that’s naturally resistant to corrosion, and you probably use it every single day of your life. Soda cans, metal utensils, automotive parts and even buildings are all made of aluminum because it’s so malleable and strong.
Several aluminum alloys exist that can make the metal even stronger and more corrosion resistant. Make sure you don’t eat it, though — on the genetic level, aluminum bonds with the phosphates in human DNA and can contribute to dementia.
Gallium is primarily used as a semiconductor in electrical applications and as a material for mirrors because of its inherent shine. It isn’t used for things like eating utensils, though, because it’s melting point is so low that it will melt in your hand.
If you ever want to play a prank on someone, have them stir their coffee with a gallium spoon — it’s non-toxic, and it will be hilarious to see their face as their spoon melts away.
Indium has similar uses to gallium, and when alloyed with the latter metal, it will melt at room temperature. It is used to make mirrors, transistors and other electrical components.
Thallium, the next element on our list, doesn’t have as many uses today as it used to. This bluish metal used to be part of rodent poison, until it was discovered that it was just as poisonous to humans as it was to the rodents.
Today, radioactive thallium isotopes are used in medicine. If you’re having a problem with your heart, your doctor might use thallium 201 to determine how well it’s functioning
You might not find tin in cans anymore, but there is still plenty of it out there. It doesn’t corrode, so it is used as a primary component in anti-corrosive coatings. When paired with niobium, tin also makes a powerful superconducting magnet.
You probably encounter more lead than you might think — it’s in the protective vest at the doctor’s office when you get an x-ray, your fishing weights, and inside the battery of your car. It can also be used as a protective coating for wires. It is toxic, though, so make sure you’re not nibbling on any lead-based paint!
You’ve probably got bismuth in your medicine cabinet — though it’s mildly radioactive, it is also used as one of the primary ingredients in Pepto-Bismol. This brittle metal is also used in fire extinguishers and smoke detectors.
The other four elements on our list — nihonium, flerovium, moscovium and livermorium — are all short-lived radioactive elements that are created in a lab and have no other applications beyond lab research.
And there you have it — everyday uses for the basic or post-transitional metals. Are you surprised by how many of these metals you use every day without realizing it? The next time you successfully start your car or crack open a cold soda or beer, make sure you think of the basic metals that make up that can.