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Mineral Monday: Bismuth By Request


By popular request (ok, by Rose’s request,) today’s Mineral Monday is bismuth!

Bismuth is element number 83 on the periodic table, and there are so many weird facts about it, I really have no idea where to start.

No, that’s a lie, I do.

Let’s begin with a French chemist named Claude François Geoffroy. Geoffroy, who came from a family of apothecaries and other scientists demonstrated that Bismuth was not the same thing as lead in 1753.  He died that same year. Poor guy.

Looking at the above picture, it’s kind of easy to make light of Geoffroy’s achievement. I mean, that doesn’t look anything like lead, right? But out in the real world bismuth doesn’t look like a tie-dyed M.C. Escher painting. In fact, it usually doesn’t even occur in visible crystals, and usually you can find it in ore, where it looks like this:

Bismite, an ore of bismuth. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bismite, an ore of bismuth. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I know, I know. It’s not nearly as pretty. In order to get the pretty, specimen-worthy versions, pure bismuth is down and grown in labs, to get insane crystals. Technically, because these specimens are lab grown, they aren’t minerals (minerals have to be naturally occurring,) but really, who cares? It’s amazing. Bismuth technically can form crystals in nature, but it’s usually so mixed-in with other materials (like lead) that it never really gets the chance to grow to it’s full potential. And what a potential it is.

Bismuth crystals on right, and bismuth metal on left. Which one do you want? Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bismuth crystals on right, and bismuth metal on left. Which one do you want? Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Those psychadellic colors are a result of a thin layer of oxide or tarnish that forms on the surface of the lab-grown structures.

Though it takes on beautiful shapes and colors, bismuth isn’t just a pretty face. It’s other properties are just as entrancing. Bismuth is one of the few materials that expands when it solidifies, just like water. It’s also very diamagnetic, which means that it repels magnetic fields, with dramatic results:

Bismuth is also (technically) radioactive. It has a half-life of 19,000,000,000,000,000,000 years. To put that in perspective, consider this, from an article on ChemiCool: “If precisely 100 grams of bismuth-209 had been present at the beginning of the universe 14 billion years ago, about 99.9999999 grams of it would still be around today.” Insane, right?

Ok, last crazy bismuth fact of the day. Ever wonder where the ‘bis’ in ‘Pepto-Bismol” came from? Of course not. But now you can wow your friends with the non-sequitur that bismuth (or more accurately, bismuth subsalicylate) is an active ingredient in the violently pink wonder drug. Popular Science even has an article about how to extract bismuth from Pepto-Bismol tablets.

If you’re a little more hard-core DIY and want to make your own bismuth crystals, and you have access to metalworking equipment, there are plenty of instructional videos and detailed guides out there ready to help you out.

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