Common Uses of Barium

This is a picture of Barium in a vacuum environment to prevent oxidation.
This is a picture of Barium in a vacuum environment to prevent oxidation. | Source
Barium quickly oxidizes when exposed to air, taking on a soft grey appearance.
Barium quickly oxidizes when exposed to air, taking on a soft grey appearance. | Source

Atomic Number 56

The alkaline metal known as barium (Pronounced "bear-ee-um") is a metal that was discovered in 1774 but was first isolated 34 years later by Sir Humphry Davy, a British chemist and inventor. Its name is derived from the greek word βαριά meaning "heavy," giving obvious clues as to its density. Barium is an interesting metal, with an interesting history, and an odd array of uses. While it is one of the most common elements found in the earth's crust, your odds of finding it in elemental form on a morning stroll are exactly zero. It is a highly reactive metal which oxidizes quickly in air, creating barium carbonate, and barium peroxide.

Common Uses for Barium

Barium Sulfate in Oil Production
Barium Sulfate is primarily used when drilling for new oil wells, which is by far the most common use for barium. It is combined with water and some other minerals to create drilling mud. This "mud" gets pumped into the drilling holes, and because of its weight, it helps to prevent the oil from exploding out into the environment; a method BP is apparently unaware of.

After being exposed to light, "charged" barium sulfate can glow in the dark for up to six hours. It is also reported that, if heated enough, the glow will last for years.

Ultra-Pure Barium uses in Electronics
The next most common use for barium is to remove the remaining bits of gasses in electronic vacuum tubes. Materials used for this purpose are typically referred to as "getters," for obvious reasons. Since it oxidizes so quickly, it is used in the manufacturing process after a vacuum tube has been pumped and sealed. In its purest form, the barium will be fired into the tube, allowing it to absorb any gasses left over from the pumping process.

Barium chloride is responsible for the brilliance behind 4th of July displays.
Barium chloride is responsible for the brilliance behind 4th of July displays. | Source

Barium Chloride in Pyrotechnics
Barium is also used extensively in the production of fireworks. We've all watched with childhood delight as fireworks explode into a wide array of colors. Every time you see a shade of green, you're looking at an explosion of super-heated barium chloride. White fireworks are also often, but not always, created using barium oxide.

This is a radiocontrast x-ray of the stomach done using barium meal (or a "barium swallow").
This is a radiocontrast x-ray of the stomach done using barium meal (or a "barium swallow"). | Source

Barium Sulfate in Medicine
Thanks to its lead-like ability to block X-rays, barium sulfate may be used in a procedure called a barium swallow. This procedure involves drinking about a cup and a half of a chalky mixture called "barium meal." X-rays are taken as the barium flows through and coats your digestive tract. The barium coating will be illuminated on the X-ray allowing for the diagnoses of certain abnormalities in the stomach, esophagus, intestines, or colon. This is called radiocontrast.
Barium also carries another similarity to lead: toxicity. In sulfate form, however, barium is not water soluble. The lack of this solubility causes it to simply run through our system to do its job, then flow right out. Our bodies aren't able to absorb it, making it far more safe to swallow than paint chips.

Barium Carbonate for Pest Control
Barium's usefulness is rather limited in any form other than barium sulfate, due to its toxicity. However, this very trait does provide us with one particular use: rat poison. When ingested, barium carbonate reacts to the stomach's acid, forming barium chloride. This compound in turn is absorbed into the bloodstream, poisoning the rat that was unfortunate (and hungry) enough to come across this deadly meal.

Barium Carbonate Dishes
Barium carbonate is in fact used for yet another purpose. Because of the high density of barium, it is sometimes used in place of other, lighter elements when making pressed glassware. This creates more brilliancy in the finished product, and naturally comes out with a much better glass than would otherwise be found.

The same compound is also used as a glaze in the manufacture of some ceramic pottery. Many people are against this use, however, as it has been reported to cause barium toxicity in some people from certain pieces, such as coffee mugs.

Other Barium Uses

In addition to the uses mentioned, barium can also be found in other applications such as:

Quick Disclaimer
While I am very aware that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill had nothing to do with the lack of drilling mud, I find that any joke at BP's expense...is a funny joke.

© 2012 Steven Pearson

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Know any other uses of Barium? Leave them here! 15 comments

jbosh1972 profile image

jbosh1972 4 years ago from Indianapolis, IN. USA

Equally fascinating is how barium sulfate is the most abundant natural ore for barium and hense the starting point. It should be pointed out that intense heating of barium sulfate with carbon at 1100 Celsius will produce barium sulfide. Barium sulfide in water will even react with carbon dioxide forming barium carbonate and hydrogen sulfide. All other salts of barium can be formed from this.


alissaroberts profile image

alissaroberts 4 years ago from Normandy, TN

Wow I never knew the many uses of Barium! Now I can tell my boys that those green fireworks are made with barium chloride and sound super smart in the process :) Thanks for all the useful info - voted up and interesting!


Teresa Coppens profile image

Teresa Coppens 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

Awesome hub Matt. One of my kids is taking chemistry at the moment. He may have use for this hub later in the term. Who would have guessed Barium was involved in so many uses.


mattforte profile image

mattforte 4 years ago from Spanaway, WA Author

nifwlseirff:

Compared to most other metals, it's use is actually pretty limited. It's the glaring differences from one use to another that I find interesting.

And yes. Any type of "glaze" is going to release material, bit by bit. That's probably exactly the caase.

theclevercat:

Thanks =) There isn't much out there on this subject, and what you can find is pretty hard to read...so I really tried to stand out.

ithabise:

Yes, science and math make up everything. I love when I become enlightened to the sciences behind some every day object or event that I once saw as mundane. Makes the brain wonder. Also...I don't want to know, lol.

cardelean:

I imagine most people haven't even heard of it, unless they were unfortunate enough to be forcefed a metal smoothie. ;-)


cardelean profile image

cardelean 4 years ago from Michigan

That was fascinating. I really had no idea that Barium had so many uses. Well...I guess that makes sense since I didn't know much about Barium at all before reading this hub. Excellent job.


ithabise profile image

ithabise 4 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

Very interesting to another science-lover. Science is all around us; and most people have no idea how useful all the weird stuff they studied in school makes their lives easier. Such is the progression of civilization. And I've had my own rendezvous with barium meal, which constitutes my most embarrassing moment ever! Good read, Matt!


theclevercat profile image

theclevercat 4 years ago from Massachusetts

Cool! Very well researched. I love when I read a Hub and it really teaches me a lot. This is one of those times. Voted up and awesome.


Daisy Mariposa profile image

Daisy Mariposa 4 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)

Matt,

Thanks for publishing this well-researched, informative, well-written Hub. I enjoy reading articles from which I can learn something new.

I'm going to share this with my followers.


nifwlseirff profile image

nifwlseirff 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

I had no idea it was so widely used! Do you think the barium toxicity comes from longer term contact with hot liquid? Great hub!


mattforte profile image

mattforte 4 years ago from Spanaway, WA Author

CC:

Surprise! That really is pure barium. In it's most pure form it is silver in color, which is why vacuum tubes will often have a blackish-silver spot on them from the getting process. Pure barium can be extracted through electrolysis, and contained in an argon container (which doesn't react with barium) allowing for a picture such as this one.

Brittany:

Thanks! That actually means a lot after the work I put into this. It is an effective rat killer for sure - but being an animal lover, I don't particularly care for the process they go through. (Yes, I have the misfortune of knowing how they die) Though I'm sure all poisons are rather unpleasant.

K9:

I tend to be a left-brainer. (In love with a right-brainer!) So unless I'm talking/writing in a philosophical sense, it's easy for me to be very matter of fact. But I'm also a smart-ass by nature, so I make it a point to try to throw in a bit of myself to prevent people from falling asleep. So glad it worked! And thanks again.


K9keystrokes profile image

K9keystrokes 4 years ago from Northern, California

Interesting and fantastic info on atomic #56! I laughed right out loud at your BP reference Matt! I too, agree that any joke at BP's expense is top choice. I also giggled at your paint chip tip...

This is an outstanding hub. I learned, laughed, and felt awe over the many uses for Barium. Voted Up across the board!

HubHugs~


brittanytodd profile image

brittanytodd 4 years ago from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

Wow! This is an impressive, well-researched hub! Thank you for sharing all of this information. I have heard of Barium used in electronics, but never knew it was used for pest control! Great work, voted up, etc.


cclitgirl profile image

cclitgirl 4 years ago from Western NC

Who knew all these facts about barium? It's really neat looking, though I'm thinking it's probably not just "barium" in that first picture. :) I'm glad it's one of the most common elements - we've found a lot of stuff to do with it. Nice job here. Voting up/U/A/I.


mattforte profile image

mattforte 4 years ago from Spanaway, WA Author

Thanks Lisa - you just made me realize I hadn't quite explained that part well enough. Fixed!

The fact that barium will quickly react to almost all of the non-metal elements, means you very well may find barium compounds on said stroll. What you won't be able to find is pure barium.


LisaKoski profile image

LisaKoski 4 years ago from WA

Yet another useful article by mattforte for those interested in anything science. Now every time I look at dishes I will think of fireworks and x-rays since now I know they're all connected through barium. I'm just kidding but actually it's funny to see what seemingly random assortment of things that stuff goes into.

You say that it's one of the most common elements in earth's crust yet we couldn't just find it while walking. How deep into the crust do you have to go before you find an abundance of this stuff?

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