What’s more menacing than a highly toxic gas? Perhaps a highly toxic gas that is also highly reactive with every other member of the periodic table, and that’s precisely what you’ll find in Fluorine. Volatile as this halogen may be, it has found plenty of ways to be useful to humans.
Gaseous and Dangerous
Fluorine is the lightest member of the halogens, and the most reactive of all the materials on the periodic table. Its high level of chemical activity is probably due to the fact that it is the most electromagnetic element (and therefore attracts the most electrons), and that its atoms are quite small.
In nature, Fluorine can only be observed in its compounds and not in isolation. Still, Fluorine is far from rare as it makes up about .065% of Earth’s crust, and can be found in great abundance in the mineral Fluorspar.
At room temperature, Fluorine is a yellow gas with an odor that tends to be irritating. It reacts with almost every other element, with the exception of helium and neon. This gas should not be inhaled, as it is very toxic and cause serious bodily harm. For this reason, handling Fluorine is quite dangerous and in turn, quite expensive.
This element reacts quickly and quite violently with all sorts of metals. In fact, it will cause steel wool to burst into flames upon contact, which speaks to the unbridled power of the gas.
Noticed Centuries Ago
As far as origin stories go, Fluorine’s is pretty interesting. Sun-like stars begin producing Fluorine near the end of their lives, and so it is eventually dispersed into the solar system. In some number of steps later, Fluorine wound up as a fairly common element on Earth.
Fluorspar was first catalogued in 1529, and although it is the primary source of Fluorine, the element itself wasn’t discovered until several hundred years later. Henri Moissan finally isolated Fluorine in 1886, decades after the element had already been named and recognized.
In the previous years where scientists were attempting to complete the isolation, some were badly burned, blinded, or killed by the volatile substance. In fact, even Moissan had been poisoned more than once before finally figuring out how to isolate Fluorine safely.
Fluorine can be found virtually anywhere, as it is the 13th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust thanks to its mineral deposits. In turn, most Fluorine is mined in China, Russia, Mexico, and South America, a testament to how widespread this element really is.
Dental Health and Nuclear Fuel
For being such a toxic element, Fluorine has an incredibly wide range of uses. One of the first reasons people began processing fluoride in the mid-1900s was as a nuclear fuel source, and that’s still the case today. Uranium Hexafluoride is an important component of nuclear fuel; it first came to popularity when the United States was in the process of developing the atomic bomb.
Other uses include caring for dental hygiene through Sodium Fluoride with toothpaste products as well as in drinking water. This is because Fluorine is actually present in human bones (like teeth) as fluoride, and therefore helps strengthen them.
Of course, it’s worth noting that Flourine’s uses are all with its compounds, and not with the isolated gas, outside of experimentation purposes.
Fluorine demonstrates that even the most disagreeable of players have their place on the team, and they may even prove themselves valuable when given a chance.