We use elements every single day, even if we don’t realize it. Every time you pick up a fork to eat your breakfast, use toothpaste to brush your teeth and even take a breath, you are using one or more of the 118 elements we’ve currently discovered and classified.
Today, we’re going to take a closer look at nonmetals. What are nonmetals, and where can you find them in your daily life?
Properties of Nonmetals
Nonmetal is a broad term for a group of elements that don’t really fit anywhere else:
Two artificial elements, tennessine and oganesson, may also be considered nonmetals, but more research is required to determine whether this is true.
The properties of nonmetals vary due to the dramatic differences in these elements. However, they primarily appear as gasses. If they are solid, they are primarily brittle with a submetallic appearance.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element on the planet, followed by oxygen, carbon and nitrogen.
Chemical and Physical Traits
Nonmetals tend to have high ionization energies and high electron affinities — they are happy to borrow a few electrons from surrounding elements, and they bond well and frequently with others as well. The only exception to this is nitrogen, which has a negative electron affinity, so it doesn’t like bonding with anything other than itself.
These elements, the ones that are in solid form, have low melting and boiling points. They also don’t conduct heat or electricity very well, unlike metals, which for the most part are good conductors of both.
With as many elements as there are on this list, chances are you’ve encountered more than a few of them during your daily activities. Let’s break down the real-life applications of each type of nonmetal.
- Carbon: Carbon makes up most of the life on this planet — it’s in our cells. It’s also on your finger or around your neck if you have a piece of diamond jewelry, as diamonds are simply carbon that has been compressed into a new form. It also likes to merge with oxygen to create carbon dioxide, which you exhale when you breathe and is produced in large quantities by things like car engines and industrial factories. It plays a large role in climate change.
- Nitrogen: Take a deep breath — that’s mostly nitrogen that you’re breathing. The Earth’s atmosphere is made up of 78 percent nitrogen, with the rest being oxygen and other trace elements. It is also an important part of the chemical industry, since it’s used to make everything from nylon to various dyes and even explosives. Nitrogen also bonds with hydrogen to make ammonia, which you may have in your kitchen or laundry room for cleaning.
- Phosphorus: Phosphorus comes in assorted colors. If you’ve used a strike-on-the-box match, you’ve used red phosphorus. If you’ve used a flare, you’ve used white phosphorus. This incendiary nonmetal is also used to make fertilizers and is used during steel smelting. It can also be found in clothing detergent, but this is starting to be phased out, because the element makes its way into the water supply and encourages unhealthy algae growth.
- Oxygen: Oxygen is in every breath you take. Roughly 21 percent of the atmosphere is made up of oxygen. Paired with hydrogen, it also makes up the water that you drink. You can use it to power oxy-acetylene cutting torches or make a variety of different products. In high concentrations, oxygen is flammable — in its super-cooled liquid form, it is used as rocket fuel.
- Sulfur: If you’ve ever heard anyone talking about fire and brimstone, they’re probably talking about sulfur. It smells like rotten eggs and appears in everything from gunpowder and matches to fireworks. It is also present in natural gas, giving the fuel its distinct odor.
- Selenium: You may not realize it, but if you enjoy whole grains, seafood and sunflower seeds, then you’ve been eating selenium. It is an element that the body doesn’t produce, but it is necessary to make your thyroid and immune systems function.
Nonmetals Are Some of the Most Prevalent Elements
When it comes to elements, nonmetals are the ones you’ll probably encounter most during your daily activities, simply because they are so abundant. We recommend avoiding the toxic ones, though. Take another deep breath and enjoy the nonmetals that make life on this planet possible.