In this Instructable, I will show you how to find some surprisingly good, and mostly inexpensive, samples of the elements. Many can be found in second hand shops, coin shops, superstores like Wal-Mart, or broken things that you take apart. You just have to know where to look. Scroll down and see for yourself!
Some of the things we will be looking for are:
- Spark plugs
- Fishing sinkers
- Light bulbs
- Electronic devices – cell phones, computers, etc.
Element collections are not just the playthings of wealthy eccentrics. Whether you are a lover of science, just curious, or want to make a collection of the elements, possessing samples is a great way to bring the periodic table to life. Even a partially completed element collection makes a wonderful educational tool, and can help to spark interest in science and chemistry in children. In fact, I think that every school should have at least a basic one.
Collecting elements presents its own unique challenges. For one, collecting them all is actually impossible! Also:
- Many are nearly unobtainable due to their high cost.
- Some are toxic, radioactive, or won’t stick around long because they have short half-lives (they decay into more stable elements).
- Ownership of some is prohibited by law.
- Others are highly reactive, and must be stored under oil or in a vacuum.
My advice is to enjoy collecting, whether you have two samples or twenty. Take your time; element collecting is a long-term project. Also, if you are unsatisfied with one of your samples, keep in mind that you can always buy a better sample later on. Finally, don't forget to tell people about your collection! That way, when other people run across good samples they will tell you about them or maybe even donate them to you.
How To Go About It
Obviously, you could use the internet and a credit card to buy samples of the elements. Searching for them offline, however, is much more fun, and is a great way to get your feet wet in the hobby. Unfortunately, there are very few resources to help with this kind of collecting. Starting out, I was discouraged by the seemingly vast amount of research and expense involved, and I think many others probably are as well. I hope this little guide will help you join in the fun, even if you are only casually interested. As with all great hobbies, you can learn a lot from element collecting. Here I will share my findings with you.
As your collection grows, you can build a shelf in the shape of the periodic table like the one pictured above to display it. People will instantly recognize the shape of the periodic table, and be drawn to it. To build one like mine, which cost me about $16, check out my instructable. Notice that the samples are not labeled, so people have to guess as to their identity! People who don’t care much about science may be impressed when you hand them an element they have never seen before, or have only seen in photographs.
A few notes before we begin:
The density, or specific gravity, of the elements is measured in grams per cubic centimeter (abbreviated g/cm3 or g/cc). This is useful for comparing the elements to each other or to water, which has a density of one gram per cubic centimeter. The density of aluminum, for example, is 2.7 g/cm3. This means that aluminum is 2.7 times as dense as
an equal volume of water. Heavier iron comes in at 7.874 g/cm3, while even heavier lead is 11.35 g/cm3.
The author takes full responsibility for the content of this instructable, and has made every effort to ensure its accuracy. However, due to the difficulty of backing up his findings with references to primary sources, he cannot guarantee the absence of errors. Sorry!
If you are new to this site, you should know that if you see boxes around things in the pictures, hover your cursor inside them to display additional information. Also, you can click on pictures to see them full size.
I anxiously await any questions, comments, and/or constructive criticism you may have. Also, let me know if you have anything to add (links to resources are helpful); you may be able to help me make this instructable more comprehensive!
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Step 1: Let's Start With Zinc!
Did you know the U.S. one cent piece (penny) is no longer made of solid copper? Since 1982, it has been composed of a core of 99.2% zinc and 0.8% copper, plated with a layer of pure copper (Please note that not all pennies minted in 1982 have a zinc alloy core, as member lbrewer42 pointed out. If you go with 1983 or later you will be safe).This makes zinc an easy one. Simply sanding off the copper plating of a post 1982 penny reveals the core of bluish zinc underneath, a sample that is greater than 99% pure.
All you need is:
- A U.S. one cent piece (penny) minted 1982 or later
- sandpaper or a flat metal file
Be patient! It may take you 10-20 minutes to scratch off all the copper on a penny (without power tools), as you will have to file away all of the coin’s embossed details.
What about other samples of zinc?
Corrosion-resistant zinc plating of steel (hot-dip galvanizing) is the major application for zinc. Zinc plated items you might easily obtain include:
- Nuts, bolts, washers, and other mechanical fasteners
- Acidic fruit and fruit juices often come in galvanized cans ( the galvanization is on the inside)
Zinc is used in batteries; here is a link to a tutorial showing you how to take the zinc from one. The zinc you get from a battery will probably be brittle and corroded, as the ammonium chloride inside the battery reacts with the zinc. See the picture above.
Picture note: pieces of zinc from a carbon-zinc battery. Zinc oxide is white, and I presume that is what we are seeing here.
Pure zinc is rather brittle, so other metals are added to make it more durable. A predominantly zinc alloy, used for small non-structural castings, is found in things like:
- Die cast toys like matchbox cars.
- Some garden hose fittings.
Brass is an alloy of zinc and copper.
Fun with zinc!
Zinc works well for metal casting, as its melting point (787°F, 420°C) is relatively low. This means you can sand a bunch of pennies and place them in a stainless steel ladle, then use a torch to melt them. Working with molten metal is dangerous, so take the proper precautions. Other metals that you can melt include aluminum, tin, and lead.
On the other hand, if you do not have a torch, you can still melt the little zinc disks by placing them in an empty steel vegetable can, then putting the can on hot coals like those of a campfire. The can is made of steel so it won’t melt, and it’s thin so it won’t draw much heat away from your zinc. In addition, everybody has one! Because I wanted a larger sample of zinc, I melted down 22 pennies this way, though I did get a fair amount of slag (the scum of oxidization that forms on molten metals) floating on top. This was somewhat due to the fact that I didn’t remove all of the copper plating before melting: I only sanded the edges of the coins. See the picture.
Zinc, or even just a piece of zinc-plated steel, makes a good electrode when building a battery out of a vegetable or lemon.
Step 2: Nab Some Nickel
Many people have a few foreign coins hidden in a drawer somewhere, and this is a great place to start looking for nickel. Nickel has been widely used in coins, though its rising price has led to some replacement with cheaper metals in recent years. U.S. coins have never been made of pure nickel, but rather a copper-nickel alloy. The U.S. five cent piece, for example, is made of 25% nickel, 75% copper. Canada, on the other hand, struck their five-cent coins in 99.9% pure nickel during the non-war years from 1922–1981 (during the wartime period of 1942–45, most or all nickel was removed from Canadian and U.S. coins, due to nickel's war-critical use in armor). Canada also used 99.9% nickel in its higher-value coins from 1968 - 2000.
These are just a few of the pure nickel coins out there:
It would be nice to have a more complete list, but it would require a lot of research. If you don’t have any foreign coins lying around, you can always go to a coin shop. My coin shop had a basket of assorted foreign coins on their counter, for sale at 10 cents apiece. When I found a Canadian nickel minted in 1940, the owner of the shop kindly donated it to me. What could be a better sample of nickel than an actual nickel?
Nickel, like iron, is attracted to a magnet. This means that nickel coins will be attracted to a magnet, though coins made of copper-nickel alloy and nickel-plated steel will as well. The color of nickel has a very slight yellowish tinge, but this is often only readily apparent when you are comparing its color to that of another metal.
What about other samples of nickel?
About 6% of world nickel production is still used for corrosion-resistant pure-nickel plating, like on the toenail clippers pictured above.
Many electric guitar strings are nickel wire wound around a central steel core, although some cheaper strings are wound in nickel-plated steel wire.
At one time Canada was the world’s leading producer of the metal. The nickel was mined in the Sudbury Basin, and the nickel is believed to have been deposited (I think the magma thrown out by the impact contained a lot of nickel anyway)by a large nickel-iron meteorite that created the basin.
Step 3: Take Hold of Tin
Sadly, most things referred to as tin, including tin cans and tin toys, are not made out of pure tin. Tin cans are, at best, only steel that is plated with tin. The toys are some kind of alloy that may or may not contain much tin. The best sample I have ever found are the tin fishing sinkers pictured above. As you can see, tin has a very bright, shiny white color.
You can find tin fishing sinkers anywhere fishing gear is sold. I found mine at Wal-Mart, and paid 1.78 USD for six removable split shot sinkers, the biggest ones they had. If you haven’t been fishing, you should know that you crimp this type of sinker onto your fishing line by placing the string in the sinkers’ jaws and closing it with pliers. This type can also be removed by squeezing the back of the sinker with pliers; this opens the jaws back up. The sinkers are very soft, and I believe them to be commercially pure tin (99.8%).
What about other samples of tin?
The primary application of tin is solder. One of the most common solders is 60/40, and is about 60% tin, 40% lead. Some lead free solders can contain as much as 90% tin.
Tin cans usually have an extremely thin layer of tin on the outside, and other things like the leads of electronic components are coated in tin.
Fun with Tin!
When a bar of tin is bent, a crackling sound known as the tin cry can be heard due to the twinning of the crystals. You can hear a very small version of the tin cry, at least a tin whimper, with a tin fishing sinker of the split shot variety. While holding the sinker close to your ear, gently (it will take very little effort!) squeeze the back of the sinker with pliers. The sinker will make little pinging or twinkly noises as it bends and the mouth of the sinker opens.
Try to convert it to grey tin:
If you put tin sinkers in a freezer that hovers near zero degrees Fahrenheit, they should slowly undergo a transformation. The sinkers are made of tin, in the form of metallic or ‘white’ tin, but in cold temperatures, the atoms will slowly rearrange themselves into a different crystal structure and the sinker will become ‘grey’ tin. This transformation is often called ‘tin pest’, as it is undesirable for something made of tin to transform into grey tin. Grey tin has properties similar to a metalloid (for more about metalloids, see the next step, silicon). Commercial grades of tin (99.8%) resist transformation because of the inhibiting effect of the small amounts of bismuth, antimony, lead and silver present as impurities. I put one of my sinkers in my freezer, which is hovering around five degrees. It has been a month and so far no visible change.
Even if you get a sinker to transform into grey tin, keep in mind that it is still tin; the atoms are just aligned differently. It may still make an interesting sample.
Step 4: Snatch Some Silicon
Silicon is a dark grey metalloid. Most elemental silicon lives inside electronic devices, making up the heart and soul of such semiconducting devices as diodes, transistors, and integrated circuits. To see the silicon inside these devices, all you have to do is smash them with a hammer. Sadly, though, the silicon portion of these components can be surprisingly small. The picture above shows how much silicon you can expect to find inside a large rectifier diode. These are black cylindrical devices with a white or silver band at one end. They have two leads, or legs. They are easy to find in many kinds of electronics, and microwave ovens usually contain one large one.
To open a diode, you will need:
- A rectifier diode, the biggest one you can find. They are designated by a cr or d on circuit boards.
- A hammer
- A hard surface you can hammer on
- Safety glasses
- Wire cutters or soldering iron
Once you have found a diode, either de-solder the leads from the printed circuit board (if it’s attached to one) or cut the diode free with wire cutters. Then, while holding one of the leads of the diode in the pliers, rest the body of the diode against a hard surface and strike it with the hammer. Make sure you put on safety glasses to protect your eyes from flying diode fragments. Trust me they’ll be flying. It probably won’t take more than a few hits to pulverize the diode’s casing, and then you can pull the broken pieces away to reveal the silicon junction. If the junction hasn’t broken by now, you will have to hit it with a hammer to break it open, revealing two broken hexagonal surfaces of silicon like you see in the picture. The silicon is not pure; pure silicon is not very useful. Silicon makers spice up their silicon with phosphorus, boron, or other goodies. This is called ‘doping’ the silicon, and doped silicon has very useful (and fascinating) semiconducting properties.
A similar technique to what we used with the diode can be used when opening large transistors. Transistors always have three leads, or legs.
Integrated circuits today mostly come in black plastic packages, though in the past they could be found in ceramic packages or even round metal cans. The case of an integrated circuit can be opened (or more often smashed) to expose the chip inside, though the brittle chip is usually broken to bits in the process. I have had the most luck with old ceramic ICs (some computer processors are still made with ceramic cases) and with the old metal can type. With the can type you can simply cut around, and then pop off, the top of the can. What you will see inside is:
In common integrated circuits, a wafer of monocrystalline (cut from a large single crystal) silicon (often refined to an extremely high purity of 99.9999999%) serves as a mechanical support for microscopic circuits: thousands of individual diodes, transistors, or even resistors are created in the top few thousandths of an inch by doping. They are insulated from each other by thin layers of glasslike silicon oxide, an insulator that is easily produced by exposing parts of the wafer to oxygen under the proper conditions. The “wires” that connect the components together are then layered onto the surface of the chip.
What about other samples of silicon?
Photo-voltaic cells (solar panels) are made with thin layers of silicon. A small panel from a calculator or solar stake light might make a good sample, but I am not sure what you are actually seeing when you look at a solar cell.
Silicon is not a metal, but rather a metalloid. Metalloids conduct electricity like the metals, although not as well. They are also more crystalline than the metals, making them hard and brittle. The silicon you will find in semiconductors is brittle and chips easily. In nature, silicon is primarily found combined with oxygen, forming silica. Silica is the main ingredient of sand, quartz, and glass.
There are ways reduce silica, or sand, into elemental silicon. They involve fiery chemical reactions. Search for them!
Fun with Silicon!
The broken halves of the diode’s silicon junction might make a nerdy pair of earrings.
Step 5: Collect Some Carbon
Carbon is essential to all known living systems; without it life as we know it could not exist. Pictured above are my carbon samples. The four carbon rods are from batteries that I took apart. At the bottom is a section of carbon fiber arrow shaft, cut from a broken arrow. Both represent carbon in the form of graphite. Graphite and diamond are both carbon, the carbon molecules are simply connected to each other differently. This gives graphite and diamond very different properties. For example, graphite is opaque and black, while diamond is highly transparent. Graphite is soft enough to form a streak on paper, while diamond is the hardest naturally-occurring material known.
- graphite: 2.267 g/cm3
- diamond: 3.515 g/cm3
To remove a carbon rod from a battery:
Carbon rods form the positive electrodes inside common zinc-carbon dry cell batteries. These kinds of batteries do not have the word “alkaline” on the case, but usually say something like heavy-duty, extra-heavy-duty, or even super-heavy-duty. The rods shown came out of a dead 6-volt lantern battery, and their extraction is detailed in the other pictures. For more detailed instructions on battery disassembly, see this tutorial. Once you get the carbon rod out of the battery, it may have a sticky tar-like substance on one end; this can be removed with a solvent (I used gasoline) on an old rag. Any residual black powder (manganese dioxide mixed with carbon, moist with electrolyte) still sticking to the rod can be wet sanded off, using a piece of wet-or-dry sandpaper and running water. A final scrub with warm soapy water makes the rods ready for direct handling and display.
Safety Tip: Disassembling this kind of battery is not exactly dangerous, but you will have to protect yourself from the caustic electrolyte inside. Despite being called “dry cells”, the compounds inside are moist with an electrolyte that is hard on skin and will corrode anything metal it meets. You must wear rubber gloves (or at the very least a few layers of plastic grocery bags) over your hands.
Neat Fact: The carbon rod in the battery is chemically inert, and is used here because carbon is a non-corrodible conductor. Every common metal would quickly be corroded away by the electrolyte.
Carbon fiber arrow shafts:
Graphite can be formed into strong fibers. The fibers are lightweight, owing to carbon’s low density (in this form, which is graphite) of 2.2 g/cm3.
My arrow shaft is made of these fibers, with the fibers running perpendicular to each other in layers. Very cool. My shaft says 100% carbon, but I am unsure what this actually means. You can buy arrow shafts, at least around archery season, at Wal-Mart for 3-4 dollars. Other things made of carbon fiber include ski poles, fishing rods, and other high end sporting equipment.
What about other samples of carbon?
Don’t forget other forms of carbon, like diamonds.
Pencil lead is graphite, mixed with a binder, usually a clay or wax-like substance.
Fun with carbon!
Carbon can be used as an electrode, like in a DIY mini arc furnace.
You can also use it to stir molten metals.
Step 6: Grab Some Gold
Believe it or not, you probably have some gold on you right now. Not wearing any jewelry, you say? How about your cell phone? Inside just about every phone is maybe 50 cents to a dollars worth of gold, in the form of a very thin sheet layered onto the circuit board inside. The gold forms the tiny conductive circuit pathways that connect the many different components on the board to each other, a job more commonly performed by copper.
Many people have a few old cell phones hiding in their closet. Circuit boards with gold can also be found in computers, portable mp3 players, and many other miniaturized electronic devices.
If you are ambitious, you can extract some of the gold from a circuit board, and then possibly melt it into a little nugget with a torch. The amount of gold on a circuit board is very small though, and is probably not worth all the extra effort. If you want to try it, here’s the link.
Gold is also used as plating on electrical connectors. The theory is that because gold won’t corrode, it will always form a good connection. Gold plated connectors can be found on some of the more expensive electronics cables, such as audio, video and USB cables. Quality ear buds and headphones often feature gold plated plugs. The gold plating is not very durable however, and will wear off if the connector is plugged and unplugged enough times. For these applications, a more durable nickel plating is often better. Also, keep in mind that not all gold plating is created equal. Some are thin and look like gold, can be advertised as gold, but are actually so thin that they don’t do a whole lot of good except color the object yellow.
Gold plated fuses can be bought, and these may be a small and inexpensive way to get a sample of gold. Or you could just clip the plug off of your beats headphones (ha ha).
There is also gold plated jewelry.
Next we move on to jewelry, and other fine things that are made of gold.
24 karat gold is pure gold. As far as I know it is only available as bullion or bullion coins. These are really expensive, however, so we won’t talk about them here. All the other gold you see in jewelry and other luxury items is mostly not pure because pure gold is too soft to make into anything practical. Other metals are added to make it harder and more durable. A karat is one 24th part. That means:
- 20 karat gold is 20 parts gold, 4 parts other metals, or 83% pure gold.
- 18 karat gold is 18 parts gold, 6 parts other metals, or 75% pure gold.
- 12 karat gold is 12 parts gold, 12 parts other metals, or 50% pure gold.
- 10 karat gold is 10 parts gold, 14 parts other metals, or 42% pure gold.
Keep in mind that the karat system is not precise, and the percentages can be fudged a little bit. For example, a 99% gold alloy can be marketed as 24 karat. If you look at the inside of a gold band or ring, a karat mark, usually a number and the letter K, should be visible.
Step 7: Score Some Silver
Want an inexpensive sample of silver? Look no further than your coffee maker. Yup, you heard right. Your coffee maker. If you open up a coffee maker, you will find two small thermal fuses that have silver plated cases and lead wires. Thermal fuses are also found in other heat-producing electrical appliances such as hair dryers, water heaters, hot plates, and space heaters. They function as safety devices to disconnect the current to the heating element in case of a malfunction (such as a defective thermostat) that would otherwise allow the temperature to rise to dangerous levels, possibly starting a fire.
What about other samples of silver?
- Silver plated articles
- Silver bearing solder
- ‘junk’ silver coins
- Sterling Silver articles
- Silver bullion coins and bars
Coins are a good representative of silver, as it has been a widely used coinage metal for thousands of years.
U.S. quarters, dimes, and half dollars minted before 1965 are all composed of 90% silver, 10% copper. Pure silver is soft, so the copper increases the coin’s durability and helps it resist the wear and tear of circulation. Most of these coins are not in circulation any more, but if you are extremely fortunate, you may still find one in your change. Always check your change! First look at the year on the coin, the silver ones are minted 1964 or earlier. Next, look at the edge of the coin. A silver coin is made of one solid alloy, whereas these coins today visibly consist of a sandwich of different metals.
Note: The Morgan and Peace silver dollars are 90% silver as well, but you will never find these in your pocket change. All the 90% silver coins, unless they are in very good condition and therefore have some numismatic value, are called ‘junk’ silver.
To get pure silver you have to buy silver bullion, which is mostly sold in the form of coins, rounds, or bars. One example is the $1 silver eagle, a 1 oz. silver bullion coin issued by the U.S government that is 99.93% silver and only 0.07% copper. These coins are never circulated, and each contains an ounce of pure silver. Although the face value is $1, this is not the coin’s actual value.
Silver coins and bullion can both be bought at coin shops. Sometimes you will find the junk silver coins at flea markets or pawnshops. The price of silver, which goes up and down, will dictate how much you pay for them. However, keep in mind that you will not be paying the spot price per ounce that is shown on the precious metal exchange. You have to pay a premium on top of the spot price, and this premium may be large or small depending on what form the silver takes. For example, the U.S. silver eagle mentioned above commands a high premium. Before buying silver, make sure you are an educated buyer so you don’t end up paying too much. If you are new to silver, I recommend reading this article on silver investing. It will show you all the different options.
Approximate prices as of January 2016, when the spot price hit a five-year low, and was trading around $14 an ounce, at my local coin shop:
a junk silver dime goes for about 1.25
a junk silver quarter for 3.13,
a silver eagle $18.
Silver can be a little pricey for some collectors, but remember that silver will retain its value so you can sell it and regain some of your investment if you want to. You might even make a few bucks if you bought low and sold high. Or, when the zombie horde is approaching you can trade your silver for a hatchet and a case of beer. Cheers!
Most silver in jewelry is an alloy called Sterling Silver. Sterling Silver is 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper, meaning it is slightly more pure than junk silver coins. If you have something made of sterling silver, it will have usually had the word Sterling stamped on it somewhere. The only exceptions would be if the Sterling Silver article is too small to have a word stamped on it, or the article does not have an inconspicuous place for the stamp (where the stamp would not ruin the article’s appearance). If it doesn’t say Sterling on it, but it has the appearance of silver, it may be silver plate. Silver plated articles are common, and can be found rather easily in second had shops or at yard/garage sales. There you may also find silver plated flatware. A silver plated trinket or piece of jewelry makes a good sample, or even just a plated fork or spoon.
It is a good idea for you to familiarize yourself with the appearance of silver. The most distinctive face is a tarnished surface; silver tarnishes black, sometimes with rainbow hues and other colors mixed in.
Silver is actually a slightly better conductor than copper, but is rarely used for electrical purposes because of its price.
Note: Oneida and W.M.A. Rogers are manufacturers of silver plated articles.
Fun with silver!
One way I know to test if something is silver is to place it in the yolk of a hardboiled egg. The sulfur in the yolk is supposed to make the silver blacken. I tried this, and it worked, but it took a while and got kind of gross in the process.
Element enthusiast Theodore Gray has made silver bullets, presumably for killing werewolves.
Step 8: Procure Platinum
Platinum is expensive, even more so than gold. You would think this would put it out of reach of the humble collector, but you will be surprised to learn that it doesn’t.
To look for platinum, we turn to automobiles. Platinum is the least reactive metal. It has a remarkable resistance to corrosion, even at high temperatures. Because of this, it is used to make electrodes for some automobile spark plugs and oxygen sensors. The spark plugs are now common, and can be bought in auto parts stores and often in superstores like Wal-Mart. They are expensive though, so a better option would be to get used ones the way I did. For most people this might mean talking to a mechanic and asking for old spark plugs that come out of vehicles, but I took mine out of junk cars destined for the salvage yard. The plugs by themselves are cool samples, as they have the word platinum printed right on the side. I was unsatisfied with the visibility of the actual platinum, however, so I cut away part of the plug so I could see it better. To replicate what I did, you will need:
- Platinum Spark plug
- Bench grinder
- Small flathead screwdriver
- Safety glasses and gloves
- Bench vise
My samples are Bosch Platinum plugs, which boast on the package that the center electrode is comprised of a slender 99.9% pure platinum rod. I first donned gloves and protective eyewear. Then, using a bench vise to hold the plug horizontally, I used a hacksaw to cut around the outside of the plug and remove the outer electrode. Next, I cleaned up my rough hacksaw cut on a bench grinder. Afterwards, I rested the ceramic insulator against a hard surface and struck it with a hammer, fracturing it. Finally, I was able to pick off the chunks of broken ceramic around the center electrode with a small screwdriver and reveal the platinum. Once again, you can clean up the possibly sharp edge of the ceramic on the bench grinder.
To look at a sample prepared this way, people have the body of the plug to hold onto.
What about other samples of platinum?
I haven’t done much research on other sources of platinum, as I was satisfied with my sample. However, there is still:
Platinum finds use in jewelry, usually as a 90–95% alloy, due to its inertness and shine.
Catalytic converters are vehicle emissions control devices, found on the underside of cars. They look a little like a small muffler, and are mounted just behind the engine with the exhaust manifold feeding directly into them. The platinum (or other platinum group metal or metals) helps complete the combustion of the residual unburned hydrocarbons in the engine exhaust. More research is needed, as converters may not contain platinum in a form that is sample worthy.
Oxygen sensors are mounted very close by the converter, also on the exhaust system. They sense the level of oxygen in the exhaust, and tell the engine’s computer controller if the fuel is being burned properly. Some of them have platinum electrodes.
Fun with platinum!
Want to record a message that will be readable an eon from now? Scratch it into a piece of platinum and bury it in the desert!
Step 9: Locate Some Lead
Have an old tackle box in the garage? Maybe some old fishing equipment that no one uses? This is a good place to look for lead. Fishing sinkers have been made out of lead for a long time, due to lead’s high density (70% more dense than iron). Even if you don’t have any lead sinkers lying around, they can still be bought cheaply at any retailer that sells fishing equipment. The package will probably have the word ‘lead’ printed on it, or at least something like, “this product contains lead, a substance known to the state of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm”. Sinkers are good samples; they often come in convenient plastic baggies.
What about other samples of lead?
Lead is a common enough metal, and (as you probably already know) can also be found in:
- Tire balances
- Automotive battery clamps
- Lead bullets and shot
The small weights attached to the wheel rims of most cars, called tire balances, are lead, cast around a piece of steel that allows the weight to be clipped onto the rim. You might be able to pry one off an old wheel rim, as long as it doesn’t have a tire mounted on it.
90% of the world market for lead is in storage batteries, because nearly all cars use lead-acid batteries for their electrical needs. Inside these batteries, which are big black plastic boxes, are plates of lead hardened with antimony. Also, the battery posts and clamps are often made of lead.
The clamps can be purchased in retail stores that carry automotive parts, and make for sizable samples.
Lead bullets and shot, which are alloyed with antimony for hardness, are also a good source of lead. Since it is dangerous to remove the lead slug from a live round, or to remove lead shot from a shotgun shell, I recovered bullets for my collection by digging them out of a hillside. The hillside had been used to back a target. As an extra bonus, I was taking lead out of the environment.
Fun with lead!
Lead is not very fun, a fact that was brought to the public’s attention recently by a water toxicity crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Keep in mind that lead is a potent toxin, and can be absorbed through your skin. To limit your exposure, here are a few guidelines to keep you safe:
Always wash your hands after handling anything lead, or anything that contains lead - this will keep it from being absorbed into your skin or finding its way onto things that you touch (or worse, into your mouth). The best idea is to handle lead objects with gloves, or put them in plastic baggies so you don’t have to touch them (this is how I keep my samples).
Never sand or grind on a piece of lead – this is the worst thing you could do, because it puts small lead particles into the air that you could breathe.
Step 10: Take Hold of Tantalum
The element tantalum is indispensable for making electronic components called capacitors. This is because capacitors made with tantalum can be made smaller than other kinds of capacitors, while still performing the same function. They are mostly found inside miniaturized electronic devices, including cell phones, computers, mp3 players, key fobs, and countless others. Tantalum capacitors are also more rugged than other kinds of capacitors, making them reliable even in extreme environments like the one found inside the engine compartment of your car.
More than 90% of all tantalum electrolytic capacitors are manufactured as surface mounted chip capacitors like the yellow-orange rectangular ones in the picture. Less common are the epoxy-dipped radial-lead "pearls", followed by the very rare axial lead variety. Remember that capacitors always have two leads, or legs. They are designated by the letter C, which is often printed on the circuit board right near the capacitor along with that particular capacitor’s number. Again, see the picture.
Placing a tantalum capacitor in your collection is a good representative of tantalum, because it is the prime commercial application of the metal. They can be robbed from circuit boards or bought at electronics stores like Radio Shack.
To see tantalum metal, however, you will have to burn off the epoxy or plastic case of one of these capacitors. To do this, you will need:
- Tantalum capacitor - I suggest the biggest one you can find.
- Candle, and something to light it with
- Needle nose pliers
- Wire cutters or soldering iron (to remove a capacitor from a circuit board)
- A good work surface, preferably one that cannot be damaged by heat, in a place where you will be able to find something small if you accidentally drop it.
First, clip or de-solder the tantalum capacitor from the circuit board (if attached to one). Then, while holding it in the jaws of needle nose pliers, hold it in the flame of a candle. The goal is to burn off the insulation on the capacitor. As the insulation burns and turns to ash, you can knock a layer of it off and continue burning. At some point the core of the capacitor will be only covered by a black powdery substance. Don’t confuse this layer as insulation, it won’t burn away. This is manganese dioxide. You should stop heating the capacitor core now, otherwise:
If you continue to heat the capacitor after most of the insulation has burned away, you can trigger a rapid exothermic reaction similar to the thermite reaction. The manganese oxide will give up its oxygen atoms, which form new bonds tantalum, burning it to create tantalum oxide. The core of the capacitor will ignite, burning with a small flame of its own for a second or two until it glows white hot. It won’t melt though, as tantalum has a very high melting point (5,463°F). The reaction only lasts for a few seconds, and it scared me the first time it happened. I wasn’t hurt, but handling anything that hot even for a short time is very dangerous. If you can get all the insulation off without triggering the reaction and fusing your sample, you have a sample of tantalum.
The core of the capacitor is made of tantalum powder that has been sintered into a nugget around a tantalum wire. The tantalum nugget is then coated with manganese dioxide, a black powdery substance. The leads are then attached and the whole thing is coated in epoxy.
Wet tantalum capacitors:
“Wet” tantalum capacitors, like the ones on the left side of the picture at the top of this step, are rarely seen. Mostly they are used in industrial, military, or even aerospace applications. They have a wet electrolyte, but still contain a sintered tantalum pellet like the epoxy dipped kind, hence they are sometimes called wet slug tantalum capacitors. Some have silver cases, while others have tantalum casings. The ones I found I robbed off
of a circuit board, but I can't remember what the board came out of. I googled the number on the case (109D) and found they are the “109D Commercial Style”with a “silver case, elastomer seal”. Primary applications of this style are “industrial, automotive, and telecommunication applications where a superior quality, reliable design is required”. I got all my information about them from a PDF put out by the Vishay Corporation. I haven't opened any of mine, but I have three so maybe I will sometime – I bet the tantalum nugget inside is much bigger than the ones I got from the epoxy dipped tantalum caps.
Step 11: Find Phosphorous
Matchboxes are cheap, and a great way to represent phosphorous!
According to Wikipedia, the striking surface of a typical modern matchbox is composed of:
50% red phosphorous,
25% powdered glass or other abrasive material (to increase the friction during striking),
16% binder (glue),
and 4% carbon black.
I assume other striking surfaces are of a similar composition. You could maybe try to scrape the phosphorous off and try to purify it, but for now I am happy with just putting a striking surface in my collection.
Step 12: Don't Forget Zirconium!
See the woolly filament inside these flash bulbs? I believe this is zirconium. When the bulb is connected to the current from a battery, the electricity flows through the filament just as it would in a regular light bulb. The difference here is that the filament is a flammable metal (early flash bulb filaments were made of magnesium, later replaced by brighter zirconium) and the bulb is filled with oxygen (rather than an inert gas like regular light bulbs). The filament ignites in a brilliant flash, burning to ash in an instant. The glass bulb contains this violent process, and is plastic coated to help keep the bulb from shattering. The plastic coating on these bulbs is clear, whereas many you will see are tinted a blue color.
I found these bulbs tucked away in an old box in my workshop; you might find them in antique stores. Most commercially available zirconium metal still contains 1-3% hafnium, so this sample is probably 98% pure. Zirconium is resistant to corrosion, but is reactive with oxygen at high temperatures.
Step 13: Rhodium
Rhodium is used as a plating on jewelry. I found this little giraffe in my friend's jewelry collection. Very shiny.
Step 14: Ruthenium
Ruthenium is used as a plating to give jewelry a dark shine. Some have compared its appearance to pewter, but because I am unfamiliar with pewter, I think it resembles polished hematite. The necklace is from my sister’s jewelry collection, she let me photograph it. I found the tassel on the floor in Wal-Mart.
Other things that might be plated in Ruthenium would be fishing hooks or lures (I think).
Step 15: Bag Barium
See the dark spot on the vacuum tube in the photograph? When I first saw it, I thought it indicated that the tube had failed, or ‘burned up’. However, this is not the case. Barium metal has been evaporated onto the inside of the glass envelope, forming something called a getter spot. The getter helps to maintain a vacuum, because the highly reactive barium metal combines with or absorbs unwanted gases. While the color of barium metal is silvery-white, this rapidly vanishes upon oxidation, giving way to a dark gray oxide layer, which I assume is most of what we are seeing here. Newer getter spots may appear more shiny and mirror like. If the getter is exposed to atmospheric air (for example, if the tube breaks or develops a leak), it turns white and becomes useless. Barium’s reactivity means that it must be stored in a vacuum or under oil.
Manufacture of this type of getter:
A look underneath a getter spot will reveal a metal trough, usually semicircular, that contained the barium metal during the tube’s manufacture. After the air was pumped out and the tube sealed, the trough was heated with an induction heater (which was held near the trough, outside of the tube). The trough got red hot and the barium became vaporized, instantly reacting with any residual gas, then condensing on the cool walls of the tube in a thin coating, the getter spot or getter mirror, which continues to absorb gas. This is the most common type, used in low power vacuum tubes. Specialized tubes may use a more exotic getter material like zirconium.
I found vacuum fluorescent displays in old microwaves. Vacuum fluorescent displays have getter spots, though LED displays are more common nowadays.
I found my vacuum tube inside an old TV, which was in an old dump. The transistor was invented in 1947, and by the late 1960’s had almost completely replaced the vacuum tube.
A look around a flea market or antique shop may yield old electronics that contain vacuum tubes, or even just the tubes themselves (I have seen both).
Vacuum tubes are still used in high-end audio equipment, notably guitar amplifiers.
Note: Keep in mind that not all getters use barium. A functioning phosphorus getter looks very much like an oxidized metal getter, although it has an iridescent pink or orange appearance which oxidized metal getters lack. Phosphorus was frequently used before metallic getters were developed; they didn’t continue to absorb gas after they were fired.
Picture note: A white deposit indicates total failure of the seal on the vacuum system.
Step 16: Take Hold of Tungsten
Tungsten is synonymous with light bulb filaments, and a filament makes a good sample. A big filament is best, and these come from high wattage light bulbs. Light bulbs used in automobiles can also have large diameter filaments, because they use the lower voltages provided by car batteries. The drawbacks of filament samples are that they are small, and to remove one from a bulb you have to deal with the potential hazard of broken glass. When braking light bulbs, I recommend wrapping the bulb in a piece of cloth like material, then smashing it with a hammer. If you do it right, the glass bits will be contained by the material. Then, you can separate the filament from the bulb. Alternatively, leave the filament in and use the base of the bulb as a holder of sorts.
Tungsten is quite heavy, just slightly less dense than gold. It would be cool to have a sample big enough that would allow you to feel this property.
What about other samples of tungsten?
Wikipedia states that:
High-density alloys of tungsten with nickel, copper or iron are used in high-quality darts (to allow for a smaller diameter and thus tighter groupings) or for fishing lures (tungsten beads allow the fly to sink rapidly). Some types of strings for musical instruments are wound with tungsten wires.
I have a golf club that advertises copper-tungsten weighting. I can’t see it though; I think it is inside the club head.
My wal-mart sells tungsten fishing weights, though they cost around 6-7 USD for four and are no doubt an alloy of some kind.
TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding utilizes tungsten electrodes. From what I understand, during welding electricity jumps an arc from the tip of the tungsten electrode to the metal to be welded. At the same time another rod, a filler rod, is placed in the heat of the arc, melting it to form the weld puddle. Tungsten’s high melting point (the highest of any metal, 6129 degrees F) means the electrode can withstand the high temperatures of the arc without melting, though the welding process does slowly consume it. Some TIG electrodes have other metals added, as indicated by colored paint on the end of the electrode:
- 2% thoriated (with thorium) - red tip
- Pure tungsten - green tip
- Lanthanated tungsten (with lanthanum) - gold tip
- Ceriated tungsten (with cerium) - orange tip
- Zirconiated tungsten (with zirconium) - brown tip
I have yet to get to a welding shop to ask about TIG electrodes, but they are probably expensive and only sold in a full box of ten.
Step 17: The Twofer: Americium and Neptunium
Inside every ionization type smoke detector is a small amount of the radioactive element americium. These smoke detectors are very common; you probably have a few in your home. It’s actually quite easy to tell if you do, because they all have the words “contains radioactive substance Am 241” molded into the plastic. The americium, in the form of americium dioxide, is plated onto a small metal button inside, mounted in a small enclosure known as the ionization chamber. You can open the smoke detector and take the little button out; it isn’t that hard and there is a great instructable on how to do it. What about the radiation, you ask? The radiation emitted is relatively benign, but to be safe I recommend the following:
- Keep the americium button in a safe place away from kids, preferably in a small childproof container of some kind.
- Never touch the face of the button that the americium is plated on. If you do accidentally touch the face of the button, wash your hands.
Americium is a synthetic or manmade (not naturally occurring) element, the only such element to have found its way into peoples’ homes.
Most ionization smoke detectors contain a maximum of one micro curie (abbreviated 1.0 uC) of americium.
One curie = 37 billion spontaneous nuclear transformations per second
micro = one millionth part, so 1 micro curie is equal to 37 thousand spontaneous nuclear transformations per second.
Sometimes this same figure is given in becquerels, and
One becquerel = one spontaneous nuclear transformation per second.
Therefore, each smoke detector contains a maximum of 37,000 becquerels (abbreviated 37kBq)
Every second, about 30,000 of the americium atoms decay. When they do this, a chunk of the atomic nucleus breaks off and goes flying through the air. Primarily this is an alpha particle, which is two neutrons and two protons stuck together (the equivalent of the nucleus of a helium atom). This leaves behind a nucleus with two less protons, meaning the atomic number of the decaying atom drops by two: Americium, element 95, becomes Neptunium, element 93. Alpha particles, because they are large and positively charged, only travel a few inches in air and are easily absorbed by a few sheets of writing paper.
The half life of Americium 241 is 432.2 years.
The older a smoke detector is, the more Neptunium atoms it will contain. Neptunium-237 has a half-life of 2.14 million years. This means that you can use americium buttons to fill both the americium and neptunium places in an element display.
Why radiation in a smoke detector?
Inside the detector’s ionization chamber, there are two metal plates sitting opposite each other. Attached to one of them is the americium button, which is emitting a constant stream of alpha particles that cross a small air gap and are then absorbed by the other plate. Because alpha particles each contain two protons, which are positively charged particles, a tiny potential difference (and a tiny current flow) is created between the two metal plates. This current can be sensed by the smoke detector’s circuitry. When smoke particles enter the chamber, they absorb the alpha particles and become ionized, breaking the circuit and triggering the alarm.
I bought my smoke detectors in second hand shops, both for fifty cents. You can find them sometimes with the hardware. Just make sure it says it contains a radioactive element. If you buy one this way, you will probably be keeping a radioactive substance out of a landfill.
Another way to get a smoke detector is to buy one in a store, though they may be a bit pricey.
Step 18: Include Some Iron
Unfortunately most things, including cast iron and wrought iron, are not iron but in fact steel, an alloy of iron and carbon. As far as I know, you will not come across pure iron anywhere. It is too soft for any practical use. Crude iron metal is produced in blast furnaces, where ore is reduced by coke to pig iron, which contains 3.5–4.5% carbon. Further refinement with oxygen reduces the carbon content to the correct proportion (between 0.002% and 2.1%) to make steel.
My advice is to not lose any sleep over the purity of your iron sample, but just place a piece of mild (low-carbon) steel in your collection and be done with it. No one is going to look twice at your sample of iron anyway. As with any of the elements, you can always buy a purer sample online later.
Step 19: Chromium
Above is a picture of a chromium plated robe hook.
Although it would be cool to have a chunk of chromium metal, you will only find it as a thin plating on metal objects like:
- hood ornaments and other automobile parts
- bathroom fixtures
Also, stainless steel contains chromium.
Step 20: Copper
In most electrical applications, copper is greater than 99% pure. This is because even slight impurities in the copper can drastically lower its conductivity. Copper is an easy metal to find a good sample of, especially because its distinctive peachy color makes it easily identifiable. The challenge, then, is to find a sample of copper that is interesting.
For myself, I wanted a heavy sample so that people lifting it could get an idea of copper’s mass. It also had to be compact enough to fit into my collection, and be interesting to look at. A magnetron, the vacuum tube that produces the microwaves that heat food in a microwave oven, provided me with just the sample I needed. Robbed from a dead microwave, I cut out the copper center portion with a hacksaw. The inside of the tube is evacuated, so the copper surfaces inside are untarnished by air and very peachy, at least for a while.
Warning: Some magnetrons have beryllium oxide ceramic insulators, which are dangerous if crushed and inhaled, or otherwise ingested. Whatever you do, never break the ceramic insulators of the magnetron. Broken ceramic insulators or magnetrons should not be directly handled. Also, opening a microwave can be dangerous because they contain high voltage capacitors that can store a lethal charge for some time even after the microwave has been unplugged. To be safe I usually let my microwaves sit around for several months. To be extra safe you can:
- use tools with insulated handles to do the disassembly
- Work using only one arm at a time.
- Never touch the leads of the capacitor.
A really awesome sample would be a piece of native, or naturally occurring copper. I saw some beautiful samples of native copper from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in a Flea Market, but they wanted 15-20 USD for each of them.
Pennies are easy to come by, but pre 1982 U.S. pennies are only 95% copper, the other 5% being zinc.
Step 21: Mercury
A friend gave me this sample. He was working in an old house and came upon a thermostat with a mercury switch. Mercury like all metals conducts electricity, and will slide to one end or the other of the glass tube, connecting the electrical contacts to open or close different circuits. I have seen mercury thermometers for sale in antique/junk places, but samples like mine are cool. The mercury slides around freely inside its sealed ampoule, and it is really fun to play with. By far one of my coolest samples. Handle with care. The switch was part of a dial thermostat, and was fastened to the end of a coiled bimetallic strip. I had a picture of the inside of the thermostat, but the computer it was on died. I imagine that thermostats like this may not be available to buy new, but you could check your local hardware or home improvement store.
If you have a sample of mercury, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to educate yourself on how to clean up a spill if your sample ever gets broken.
Mercury is known for being the only metal that is a liquid at room temperature. It is also known for being toxic. Mercury is sometimes called quicksilver, from the fact that it can glide very quickly across a surface. This is because mercury atoms like very much to stick to each other, but they don’t like sticking to most other substances.
Step 22: Lithium
The picture above shows the guts of a ‘dead’ 3-volt lithium coin cell (the kind that say lithium on them). On the inside of the negative half of the cell is a little bit of lithium metal. I was able to open the cell with:
- Two pairs of pliers
- A small flathead screwdriver
First I held the cell in one pliers, negative side up. Then using the other pliers I grabbed the edge of the positive side, pulling the edge of it down and away. It was a bit difficult for the pliers to grab the edge, but I was able to wrench the coin cell open on one side this way. These batteries can be sealed pretty tight! Next, I was able to grab the edge of the positive half with one pliers and the edge of the negative half with the other, then wrench the two apart. Now that you have the cell open, you will encounter four things:
- A small piece of wire mesh.
- A cake of black powder (manganese dioxide) moist with electrolyte.
- A thin layer of cardboard.
- A plastic ring that made the seal between the two halves of the cell.
All of these stayed with the negative half of the battery I took apart. I removed them, by picking at them with the screwdriver, in the order they are listed above. When I peeled the cardboard layer off, some of the lithium, most of which had corroded into a white flaky substance, came off with it. I accidentally scarred some of the soft lithium metal that was still sticking to the inside of the metal cup with my screwdriver, exposing a fresh grey surface, and then watched in awe as the damaged area corroded before my eyes. It immediately started to turn brown, and after about fifteen seconds it had turned a dull, very dark grey color. Later that afternoon it was a bluish grey, and by the next day it had turned white.
You will almost certainly find one of these 3V lithium coin cells if you open a computer; they are a popular choice for providing power to the CMOS (complimentary metal-oxide semiconductor), a battery-powered memory
chip in your computer that stores startup information. Your computer's basic input/output system (BIOS) uses this information when starting your computer.
Lithium(an alkali earth metal), is highly reactive and quickly corrode away if left out in the air for very long. With a density of only .534 gm/cm3, it is the least dense solid element, and rods of the metal are said to have a heft more similar to that of wooden dowels than any metal normally encountered.
What about other samples of lithium?
My dad found a lithium AA battery in a parking lot. I could cut it open to obtain about a gram of thin lithium foil. It wont last long, however, unless you store it under oil. You could use a hacksaw to open these batteries, but I think a small manual tubing cutter would be the best way. There are various how-tos on how to do it, search for them!
You can buy lithium batteries in stores, they are usually about $5 for a pack of two. The most common ones are Energizer Ultimate Lithium, the “longest lasting AA battery“. They are not to be confused with the rechargeable types of lithium battery, like the lithium-ion or lithium-polymer.
Mineral oil is the best oil to store samples under because it is very clear and is non-flammable. You can buy it in stores, I think in the health and beauty department.
Step 23: Bag Some Bismuth
I don’t have any bismuth yet, but I know where to look now:
In the early 1990s, researchers began to evaluate bismuth as a nontoxic replacement for lead in various applications. The density difference between lead (density 11.32 g·cm-3) and bismuth (density 9.78 g·cm-3) is small enough that for many ballistics and weighting applications, bismuth can substitute for lead. For example, it can replace lead as a dense material in fishing sinkers.
The next time you are in Wal-Mart, wander over to the aisle where they sell fishing gear. See if you can find bismuth fishing sinkers. If you don’t see them, you can always try a different Wal-Mart (not all stores carry the same products) or a retailer that sells fishing and outdoor merchandise. I haven’t found them yet, but I only recently started looking! Keep in mind that some are a bismuth-tin alloy.
What about other samples of bismuth?
The pink product pepto bismol contains bismuth, in the form of bismuth subsalicylate. You can extract the bismuth metal from Pepto bismol, and Theodore Grey has done it with the tablets. Here is the link. It may or may not be fiscally practical. If it costs you ten or twelve bucks to get enough tablets, you may be able to buy a big chunk of bismuth online for less.
Bismuth has been used as a replacement for lead in shot and bullets. Bismuth-tin alloy shot is one alternative that provides similar ballistic performance to lead.
Many bismuth alloys have low melting points and are found in specialty applications such as solders, as a replacement for traditional tin-lead solders, like in electronics.
Many automatic sprinklers, electric fuses, and safety devices in fire detection and suppression systems contain the eutectic In19.1-Cd5.3-Pb22.6-Sn8.3-Bi44.7 alloy that melts at 117 °F (47 °C )
Fun with bismuth!
High-purity bismuth can form distinctive, colorful hopper crystals. Run an image search for bismuth crystals and see for yourself! The variations in the thickness of the oxide layer that forms on the surface of the crystal causes different wavelengths of light to interfere upon reflection, thus displaying a rainbow of colors. Bismuth is relatively nontoxic and has a low melting point just above 520°F (271 °C) , so crystals may be grown using a household stove. Sometimes you will see these crystals in places where rocks and minerals are sold for collectors.
Step 24: Magnesium
Because of its flammability, magnesium is used to make magnesium fire starters, often called metal matches. They are basically chunks of magnesium with a Ferro cerium rod (lighter flint) embedded on one side for making sparks. To light a fire, you take a knife and shave some of the magnesium onto your tinder. Then, you use the back of your blade and the flint to shoot sparks at your tinder, igniting it. The burning magnesium flakes can reach 5,610 °F (3,100 °C), and can ignite even wet tinder. These fire starters are usually available in the camping area of Walmart and other stores that carry camping equipment, even some hardware stores. The ones I have seen cost between six and eight dollars. I haven’t bought one because I have another sample, a magnesium plate (pictured) out of an old Nokia cell phone from 1998. The plate was inside the phone, visible if you removed the battery, and the main circuit board was fixed to it with small screws. This was the sample that captured my interest and was the first metal in my collection.
What about other samples of magnesium?
Magnesium’s low density of 1.738 gm/cm3 (aluminum is 2.7gm/cm3) makes it ideal when a high strength-to-weight ratio is required. This makes it suitable for numerous applications.
Some car manufacturers, notably Volkswagen, experimented with magnesium or magnesium alloy engine blocks. Many car and aircraft manufacturers have made engine and body parts from magnesium.
Because of low weight and good mechanical and electrical properties, magnesium is widely used for manufacturing of mobile phones, laptop and tablet computers, cameras, and other electronic components. It is usually used in the chassis of such devices, an example being laptops with magnesium roll cages.
Magnesium is sometimes used in the Magnesium- aluminum alloys are sometimes used for baseball bats, often called ‘mag’ bats.
The alloys are used for high-end wheel rims, known as ‘mag’ wheels.
Dow Metal is a 80% magnesium alloy, used for various applications like piston arms in high end engines. I found some in a dump, and I think it was used for to hold the glass insulators atop a utility poll.
Seawater contains about .13% magnesium.
Fun with magnesium!
Light magnesium on fire and watch it burn.
Step 25: Sulfur
Bags of 90% sulfur can be bought in stores, sold in the gardening section. You may be able to purify it by adding it to water - sulfur is insoluble in water so it wont dissolve, but hopefully the other ingredients will.
Sulfur is known for being smelly stuff, but in reality it is the compounds of sulfur (like hydrogen sulfide, the smell of rotten eggs) that are largely responsible for this. In fact, sulfur in its elemental form has only a faint odor, one which I don't find particularly offensive. It smells something akin to matches. This is great for us element collectors. Or if you ever find the need to rub the stuff on your skin, which is what the medical sulfur I have is for (it says to mix one part sulfur to seven parts petrolatum).
I found this little jar of sulfur, actually 'flowers of sulfur'.
The sulfur I found has an expiration date on the bottle, which appears to read 9/89. The cap has 50 cents written on it in permanent marker, so presumably someone bought it at a yard sale or the like. The sulfur is an ultra-fine powder, and in this form bears the pleasant name "flowers of sulfur". This comes from the fact that the fine grains where formed when sulfur vapor condensed, forming flowery shapes. I imagine this also means it is very pure.
Step 26: Uranium
I don’t have any uranium yet, but:
I do know that it was used, in oxide form, as an additive to glass. The most typical color of uranium glass is pale yellowish-green, which in the 1920s led to the nickname “vaseline glass” (based on a perceived resemblance to the appearance of petroleum jelly as formulated and commercially sold at that time). You will see it labeled as “Vaseline glass” in flea markets and antique stores, and you can usually ask for it by that name. The amount of uranium in the glass varies from trace levels to about 2% by weight, although some 20th-century pieces were made with up to 25% uranium! This must have been before they knew much about radiation and it‘s effects. You can confirm the uranium content of the glass with a blacklight (ultraviolet light), as all uranium glass fluoresces bright green regardless of the color the glass appears under normal light (which can vary widely). You could take a blacklight flashlight with you to look for uranium glass.
I wondered why they could afford to use uranium as a glass additive, and the answer is:
The discovery and isolation of radium in uranium ore (pitchblende) by Marie Curie sparked the development of uranium mining to extract the radium, which was used to make glow-in-the-dark paints for clock and aircraft dials. This left a prodigious quantity of uranium as a waste product, since it takes three tons of uranium to extract one gram of radium.
I have seen numerous pieces of uranium glass in antique shops and flea markets, and almost bought a very interesting piece. It was an art deco toothpick holder, and it looked soooo cooool.
Uranium glass is only very slightly radioactive, and I don’t think it’s at all dangerous to handle.
Step 27: Aluminum
Aluminum (or aluminium, to English speaking folks outside the U.S.) is almost always found in alloy form, sometimes with as much as 15% other elements mixed in. These added elements greatly improve aluminum’s mechanical properties. It is used as pure metal only when corrosion resistance, workability, and/or heat and electrical conductivity is more important than strength or hardness. This means that the following are usually relatively pure:
- decorative things like trim on old automobiles, medallions
- heat sinks and wires
- Aluminum foil
Heat sinks can make good samples, and can come in all shapes and sizes and often interesting looking designs. They can be found in electronic devices, notably computers, audio/video receivers, and many others. They are usually used to cool the transistors inside, or the microprocessor in the case of computers. You just have to open stuff up and start looking.
Step 28: Thar She Glows! Neon!
These little neon indicator lights glow a bright orange/red, and can be found ( usually with a 60-100 thousand ohm resistor in series) in devices like outlet testers, power strips, electric heating blankets and pads, waffle irons, temperature controlled pans, and old style coffee percolators, to name a few. They run directly off of 120 volts AC, though they might run off a lower voltage without the resistor. Since I don't want to have to plug in my element collection to light up my neon bulb, I am working on a DC to DC voltage booster so that I can run one off a battery.
Step 29: Thorium Anyone?
Named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder, Thorium metal is silvery and tarnishes black when exposed to air, forming the dioxide ThO2, also called thoria or thorina.
For a sample of thorium we turn to magnetrons, as all magnetrons contain a small amount of thorium (mixed with tungsten) in their filament.
according to user dominikK20:
"it actually contains tungsten bits with 2% thorium dioxide. You can add some 30% H2O2 to them and let that sit for 2 weeks so that all the tungsten dissolves, then you can get your ThO2 out and reduce it with magnesium or whatever."
Why thorium in a magnetron? To understand why, we must understand a little about how a magnetron works.
Inside the magnetron, which is evacuated of air to form a vacuum, there are two electrodes. One is the thoriated tungsten center electrode, and the other one is the big cylindrical chunk of copper that has spokes radiating inward from the outside (my copper sample). When a high voltage is applied to both electrodes, the center electrode becomes very hot and electrons start to “boil” off into the vacuum. Normally the center electrode would have to reach a very high temperature for the electrons to
“boil” off like this, but the addition of thorium lowers this temperature. Simply put, the electrons are more willing to make the leap into the vacuum if they get to jump off of thorium atoms! The rest of the filament is tungsten, as tungsten's high melting point prevents it from melting in this instance.
Once these electrons are moving freely in the vacuum, they are attracted to the relatively positive outer electrode. However, two big ring magnets located on the outside of the magnetron are generating a mangetic field inside the magnetron that runs parallel to the filament.
This causes the electrons to spiral outward from the center electode in a circular path. Now let's consider the outer electrode for a second. See the copper spokes that jut in toward the center? Between them are cavities, and as the electrons spiral outward they brush past the openings of these cavities. Similar to when you blow across the top of a bottle and create a whistling noise, the electrons in the cavities begin to resonate, which causes the electrons to bunch into groups and form waves. These are picked up by an antenna wire attached to the outer electrode and directed through the top of the magnetron tube and into the cooking chamber of your microwave.
Thorium-232 is the most stable isotope of thorium (half-life of 14.05 billion years) and accounts for nearly all natural thorium, with the other five natural isotopes occurring only as trace radioisotopes. Thorium-232 decays very slowly through alpha decay to radium-228, starting a decay chain named the thorium series that ends at lead-208.
Because thorium decays slowly and only emits alpha particles, it is only weakly radioactive. This makes owning it and even handling small amounts quite safe. The risk of cancer is low, as it never gets airborne in normal usage. Only if the filament is taken out of the magnetron, finely crushed, and inhaled can it pose a health hazard.
Other sources of thorium:
Thorium is still widely used as an alloying element in TIG welding electrodes (at a rate of 1%–2% mix with tungsten)
Thorium oxide used to be used in mantles for gas lamps.
One question I'd like to know...
ARE THE WIRES LEADING INTO THE MAGNETRON MADE OF TUNGSTEN? They are really hard to cut with a wire cutters!
Step 30: Neodymium Magnets
Neodymium magnets contain, as the name would suggest, neodymium. One common source of large ones? Computer hard disk drives. Like any computer technology, advancements in the field (they keep getting faster, more spacious, and more reliable) have left many drives obsolete, making them perfect candidates for scavenging. Most computer hard drives cannot be opened with normal screwdrivers, however. Most are held together with screws that have a five-point star-shaped recess in the head, and require a star bit screwdriver (I have heard them called torx or pentalobe screwdrivers as well). The magnets themselves are coated in nickel, as the iron and neodymium in the magnet are both susceptible to corrosion. The best way to remove the coating it is to break the magnet with a few light taps of a hammer, as this will usually present edges of the nickel plating that you can grab onto, allowing you to peel it off. Caution while handling! Pinching hazard!
Step 31: Germanium Diodes
Germanium diodes, though in modern electronics have mostly been replaced by the silicon variety, can still be found in older TVs and radios. Instead of containing a sandwich-like junction like silicon diodes, they have a small chunk of germanium that is contacted by a small wire called a 'cat's whisker'. You can see this setup inside the diode through its glass tube.
Step 32: Xenon Flashtubes
Most modern cameras use flashtubes filled with xenon. Inside the camera is a battery that charges a high-voltage capacitor. When the shutter button is pressed, this capacitor dumps a large amount of current (for a very short time) into the flashtube. The surge of electricity heats the xenon gas into a plasma. If you open a camera to extract the flashtube, you will have to avoid being shocked by the high-voltage capacitor. One way to do this is to discharge the capacitor once you have the camera open. I like to place the blade of a screwdriver across the two leads of the capacitor (while holding onto the plastic or wooden handle, of course). Another probably safer way is to hold the body of a resistor in the jaws of a pliers and then bridge the two leads of the capacitor with the resistor. Use caution! Always insulate yourself.
Step 33: In the Works...
Here are a few ideas that I need to research:
niobium is used in jewelry, the kind used in body piercings.
hydrogen, obtainable through the electrolysis of water.
phosphorous, matchbox sides.
argon, light bulb.
Step 34: Elements, Assemble!
How you display your collection will largely depend on the size of your samples. I currently house mine in two bead-organizing trays from Hobby Lobby, bought for $2 apiece. Plastic organizer boxes, like the ones sold to organize fishing hooks, lures, sinkers, and other fishing doodads might work too. Many collectors build a sort of shadow box shaped like the periodic table, with a little alcove for each of the element samples to sit in. This gives the satisfaction of placing each element collected into its proper place in the table. Some elements, like the man made ones that have half lives of only a few seconds, can be represented by a picture of the person they are named after, like Albert Einstein for Einsteinium. Other examples of element displays include:
Theodore Gray built an actual wooden table shaped like the periodic table, upon which he places samples.
Member Kutluhan keeps his in hollowed out pill capsules.
If you made it this far, thank you for reading! As you can imagine, I worked hard on this instructable! Here’s how I got started collecting:
I first started collecting elements in early 2007, at the age of 14. I was taking apart a cellular phone from 1998, a big black Nokia. Inside I found a piece of magnesium, a metal unlike any I had seen before. It was lightweight, even lighter than aluminum! I looked up magnesium in the encyclopedia and learned that it is highly flammable. Yes, that’s right. Metals can burn, which is something I hadn’t fully realized. Magnesium powder or ribbon is much easier to ignite than a big solid chunk, but once you get it going it burns with an intense white flame that can exceed 5000°F (3000°C), as witnessed by a friend of mine that once lived in the southwestern United States. “Volkswagen used to make engines out of magnesium,” he said when I showed him my sample. “We were out in the desert one night, and some people pulled the engine out of an old Volkswagen and threw it on the fire. It lit up the whole canyon.” Whoa. The elements, as it turns out, are more diverse and interesting than I had originally thought. I began to wonder what other metals I might find by taking things apart. Here are a few that I have found.
Taking things apart:
Aluminum (heat sink, like the one that cools the processor)
Gold (circuit board with gold substrate, like RAM cards)
Lithium (3V coin cell that powers the CMOS)
Barium (getter spot in vacuum fluorescent display, if present)
Copper (core section of cavity magnetron)
Silicon (large rectifier diode)
Coffee Makers, Hair Dryers, Hot Plates, Etc.:
Silver (thermal cut off w/ silver plated case and lead wires)
Ionization Smoke Detector:
Americium and Neptunium (small radioactive
button inside ionization chamber)
I am still working on this instructable! Hulkbuild out.