Common Uses of Barium
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 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.
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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