Archive for January, 2010

Periodic Table of Elements

Periodic Table of Elements

I had hoped to have the two episodes on the history of the periodic table ready to upload by yesterday but the editing is progressing slower than planned, mostly because my “day” job has picked up and I am editing Business Profile Videos for three clients at the same time. Work on the Elements Unearthed podcasts has had to take a back seat to actually earning money. It has also taken more time to create the animations for the episodes than expected. I added an extra section to my original script, explaining what elements were known at the time Mendeleev built his table, and since this will be done by narration there must be some sort of visual material to show while the narrator (me) is talking, and I have devised several animations that go along with the script.

I’ve put these animations and a few still renders into a compilation clip that I am attaching to this blog here:

To explain the animations, the first two animations (after four stills) are of A. E. Béguyer de Chancourtois’ Telluric Screw, which was the first table to recognize the periodic law. He envisioned a cylinder with a spiral sequence of the elements, listed by order of atomic weights from the top down. He divided the elements into periods of 16 columns each, so that every 16 positions the pattern repeats, although not every position is occupied (atomic weights often increase by several units from element to element). It works quite well for the first few turns of the screw, but by the time it gets past titanium into the transition metals, the pattern of periodicity starts to break down because, as we now know, the periods of the periodic table aren’t the same length. The second animation shows the alignment of the elements into groups. Here are two still images rendered from the animation that show this alignment of elements by properties.

The Telluric Screw 1

Alignment of Li, Na, and K

Telluric Screw 2

Telluric Screw: Alignment of B & Al, C & Si

The next animation is simply a list of the elements by date of discovery, divided into periods of 25 years. 63 elements were known by 1869. The next animation shows all of the elements arranged in order by atomic number into six columns (there’s no reason for the six; it was just the number that I picked to set up the animation). They are also given colors by elemental families: red for the alkali metals, orange for the alkaline earths, green and blue for the transition metals, indigo for the metalloids, purple for the non-metals, bright purple for the halogens, magenta for the noble gases, and yellow and brown for the rare earths. The next animation shows the same list, but now takes away the elements that were unknown to Mendeleev, leaving only those that he was able to work with when building his table. Only a few rare earths were known, there were significant gaps, and an entire group of elements, the noble gases, was unknown. So trying to organize these elements into some sort of table was a difficult task.

Elements by atomic number

The elements listed by atomic number

The next animation shows this list of known elements moving into position to form Mendeleev’s first periodic table of Feb., 1869. One can see that he made some mistakes – beryllium and magnesium should be moved down to a position underneath lithium and sodium, and he has the rare earths out of place (mostly the trouble was that their atomic weights hadn’t been accurately measured yet). He has gold and mercury reversed, and a few groups shifted. His table is also organized vertically by periods instead of horizontally as is our usual medium format table today. If you were to take his table and rotate it clockwise 90 degrees, then flip the whole table horizontally, it would be oriented as our standard table is today and quite recognizable. This was quite an achievement given the limitations he worked with. His main insight was realizing that the periods didn’t have the same lengths; all his competitors had tried to force the elements into periods of equal lengths and it just wouldn’t work. Another insight was that he realized there were gaps in the table –  jumps of atomic weights and properties, and Mendeleev put himself out on a limb predicting that those elements were yet to be discovered; he even predicted their properties with high accuracy. The three most famous cases were gallium (discovered about five years later), scandium, and germanium.

Mendeleev's first table

Mendeleev's First Periodic Table, 1869

I am still working on several animations and one is rendering right now showing the medium format table opening up to become a long format table; I’ll do another one where the medium format table rearranges itself into a left-step table, and even try a few 3D tables as well. To build these tables, I created each element as a separate, moving tile which can be arranged in any position. The software used is Daz3D Bryce. The music playing in the animations is a simple loop I created using Garageband on my Mac. As for the sample images I’m showing here, feel free to download them and use them however you like as long as you give me credit. I’m trying to provide accurate scientific information but do so with visual appeal and artistic merit.

Meanwhile, editing on the video itself is progressing and I will have these two episodes posted along with the Rationale episode ASAP. I’ll then follow with the beryllium episodes and one on Greek matter theories, then move on to blown glass, cement making, stained glass, synthetic diamonds, and the Tintic mining district in Utah. I hope to have all of these done and posted before March 17, as I will be traveling back to Philadelphia then to attend and present at the National Science Teachers Association annual conference. My proposal to present was accepted by NSTA, and I will need to have several episodes posted by then to use in the presentation, one way or another, even if I have to put some client projects on hold.

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Beryllium mount for gyroscope

Beryllium mount for Trident missile gyroscope

This will seem to be a sudden diversion after my last post on Periodic Tables, but I am working on several video episodes at the same time and these posts will be jumping between topics depending on where I am with each one. This last Tuesday I had the opportunity to visit my home town of Deseret, Utah with several distant Black cousins on a genealogy trip, and we stopped at the Great Basin Museum in Delta to look up some old ledgers. While I was there, I took the opportunity to photograph their exhibit on the refining and uses of beryllium. It might seem strange that the best exhibit on beryllium isn’t in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. but is instead in a small, local museum in Delta, Utah. However, the only commercial source of beryllium ore (bertrandite) is located in the Spor Mts. of western Utah and partially refined at the Brush Engineered Materials concentration plant near Delta. I took a group of students to the plant in Dec., 2007 and videotaped Phil Sabey describing the refining process and history of the plant. He also took us on an excellent tour of the plant. My students did much of the initial editing of the footage that year, but I haven’t put the finishing touches on it yet because I needed more photos of how beryllium is used. This exhibit had exactly what I needed, and I can finally finish the beryllium episodes.

Gyroscope for Saturn V

Gyroscope platform for Saturn V rocket

Beryllium has unique properties that make it ideally suited for many aerospace applications. It is a very hard, tough metal but also extremely lightweight: a 36 pound piece of steel would only weigh about 8 pounds if made from beryllium. When you hold a piece of it, you’d swear it was actually plastic. Because of this, it has been used for guidance and gyroscope systems in many missiles, including the Saturn V rockets that lifted the Apollo astronauts to the moon. Here is a photo of a gyroscope platform used for the Saturn V: this one has a flaw and therefore wasn’t used in the Apollo program and was donated to the museum. It reminds me of the scene in the movie “Galaxy Quest” where TIm Allen and his crew of actors have to land on a planet to retrieve a beryllium sphere to replace the cracked one in their engine room (the scene, incidentally, was filmed at Goblin Valley in Utah). So this gyroscope platform is a true beryllium sphere . . . .

Beryllium is also transparent to X-rays and therefore ideal for use in X-ray tubes, and it is a neutron absorber and therefore useful in nuclear applications. In addition, beryllium copper alloy resists corrosion while being an excellent conductor of electricity and is used for electrical contacts and connectors where extremes of temperature and high corrosion can be expected, such as in the automatic windows of many car doors.

Beryllium copper alloy

Beryllium copper alloy

It is being used as housings for laser repeaters for transoceanic fiber optic cables where the lasers are used to amplify the optical signal. One of the most recent uses has been for the mirrors in the James Webb Space Telescope – its high reflectivity and light weight make beryllium use ideal.

Beryl crystals and bertrandite nodules

Beryl crystals and bertrandite/fluorite nodules

Beryllium is refined from two commercial minerals. Traditionally, it was concentrated from beryl crystals that were crushed and melted. The Delta plant has one feed stream that does that, and they are currently using up the strategic stockpile of beryl crystals which were purchased from the U.S. government. Beryl is actually an impure form of emerald; one could isolate beryllium from emerald or red beryl, too, but it wouldn’t be exactly cost effective. The beryl crystals on display in the Great Basin Museum come mostly from small family mines in South America and show the usual hexagonal crystal structure. The red beryl is much more rare and comes from a mine in the Wah Wah Mts. near Milford, Utah.

Red beryl crystals

Red beryl crystals from the Wah Wah Mts.

The other feed stream at the Delta plant concentrates the bertrandite ore, which is a hydrous beryllium aluminum silicate with traces of uranium and other elements. In the Spor Mts., it is found as a highly weathered pinkish clay material with frequent nodules of fluorite and some beautiful purple fluorite geodes as seen here.

Bertrandite ore

Bertrandite ore

All of this is crushed, separated with sufluric acid, and an organic floculent is added to float the beryllium particles to the top in a series of flotation tanks (seen to the upper left in this aerial shot).

Delta concentration plant

Delta beryllium concentration plant

The beryllium concentrate is then pumped off the top of the tanks, the floculent agent is stripped, and the beryllium passed through several chemical processes to concentrate it into beryllium hydroxide pellets, which must be handled in an airtight system since at this point beryllium becomes very toxic. The pellets are shipped to Elmore, Ohio for final refining into beryllium metal, beryllium alloys, and beryllia ceramic products. I stopped at Elmore on my way to Philadelphia this summer and took this photo of the Elmore plant.

Elmore Ohio plant

Brush Wellman plant in Elmore, Ohio

Because of its highly weathered nature, the bertrandite can’t be mined except through open pits. The Blue Chalk and Roadside deposits, as shown on this map, are currently being mined; there are enough deposits to provide beryllium for anticipated needs for at least the next 20 years. To aid in the mining and to lessen the amount of overburden that must be removed, the deposits are carefully drilled and mapped out in 3D.

Beryllium deposits

Bertrandite deposits in Spor Mts.

I am working on completing two video episodes on beryllium mining and concentration by mid-January and post them to iTunes (finally!). These photos complete all the materials I’ve been collecting, so now all it needs is final editing.  Along with the beryllium episodes, I’ll post two on the Periodic Table, one each on the history of glass blowing and stained glass, and the full video of the rationale for this project (I posted that in two parts to this blog several weeks ago). My goal is to post episodes once each month through June. They will include episodes on Greek matter theories, alchemy and technology in the Middle Ages, zinc mining in New Jersey, anthracite coal mining in Pennsylvania, lead mining in Missouri, petroleum mining and refining in Pennsylvania and Kansas, and salt mining in Kansas. These are all mine sites that I visited on my way back from Philadelphia. I have the video and photos, but it’s the editing that takes time. I’m also working on four projects for clients – as expected, everything heated up after New Years. I would love to have enough grant funding to work on The Elements Unearthed full time, but, alas, I must make a living and so this project can only be done here and there as I have time between client projects.

My thanks go to Phil Sabey of Brush Engineered Materials for our interview and tour back in 2007 and to Roger Anderson of the Great Basin Museum for helping me photograph the exhibit.

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I’ve been neglecting to write this blog for the last few weeks, what with the usual Christmas rush. Now that New Years is done, I’m resolved to write more often, at least twice per week. Another reason I’ve been neglectful is that I’ve been quite busy working on episodes of the videos for The Elements Unearthed project, especially the episodes on the history of the periodic table where I interviewed Dr. Eric Scerri of UCLA. He is the author of The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance by Oxford Press.

Book by Dr. Eric Scerri

During the last few weeks I’ve transcribed his interview and sent it to him to look over for revisions, as well as the drafts of the episode scripts. He has been most gracious to provide suggestions that have greatly improved the scripts. Because of the detail of the interview, I’m going to divide it into two parts, the first on the precursors to Mendeleev and the second on Mendeleev and beyond. Each should be about 15 minutes when complete. I will upload a compressed version of each episode here once they are done (another two weeks, tops – I have quite a few client projects happening right now, too) as well as the finished transcript of the interview and the episode scripts. I’ll also upload them to a dedicated video site and then uplink them to iTunes and YouTube.

In preparation for these episodes, I’ve been cleaning up the photos I took this last summer at the Chemical Heritage Foundation of the Edward G. Mazurs collected notes, which he prepared over several decades for his book Graphical Representations of the Periodic System During 100 Years, which he self-published in 1957 and which was then revised and published by the University of Alabama Press in 1974.


Books by Edward G. Mazurs

He classified over 700 different periodic tables, and his notes filled ten three-ring binders. I also was able to photograph the production artwork that was used for the books. It dawned on me while I was doing the clean-up that I didn’t actually have any photographs of the final books, so I traveled over to Brigham Young University’s library two weeks ago and found both editions on the shelves, as well as Jan van Spronsen’s book and a book in Russian with photos of Mendeleev, his notes. and his laboratory. I photographed all the relevant pages, including any photographs or portraits of the people who contributed to the development of the periodic table, including such people as Alexandre Emile Beguyer de Chancourtois, who developed his Telluric Screw in 1862 which shows the first discovery of the periodic law: that the properties of the elements seem to repeat periodically.


A. E. Beguyer de Chancourtois

Finding the 1957 edition of Mazurs’ book is quite rare, since not many were printed. While I was there, I looked up an article I remember reading in Chemistry magazine back in the 1970s on various forms of the periodic table. It’s funny how memory can play tricks on you, however. What I thought was a major article showing various forms of the table in full color was actually a short article showing one form of the table (although it was in full color). I apparently have a better memory for images than for text; my memory had expanded and aggrandized the article into something much more than it was. But the table was interesting, and here is a photo of it:


Continuous-form periodic table, 1975

I was also struck as I was preparing these images from Mazurs’ notes how some of the more exotic continuous-form periodic tables look remarkably like images of strange attractors in fractal mathematics. I’ve been playing around with an interesting free-ware program called Chaoscope trying to come up with similar images and here are a few samples comparing Mazurs’ notes and artwork with fractal patterns. Wouldn’t it be fun if some bored mathematician was able to show that the unusual pattern of the periodic system (created by the quantum mechanics of electron orbital filling in successive atoms) followed a fractal equation? I’m afraid I’m not much of a mathematician, but I can make some pretty pictures now and then. Anyway, from a visual standpoint, the similarities are amazing.


Strange forms of the periodic table by Edward Mazurs


Render from Chaoscope


Artwork for Mazurs books


Lorenz strange attractor from Chaoscope


Artwork from Edward G. Mazurs book


Render from Chaoscope

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