C&B Notes

Periodic Reminder

Bloomberg profiled current applications of all the elements in the periodic table.  Did you know that modern cell phones are made from around 75 elements, nearly 3/4ths of the periodic table?

The inventor Buckminster Fuller once described technological progress as “ephemeralization.” Sunbeams and breezes are replacing coal and oil as energy sources, brands are more important than buildings to corporations, and fiat money has supplanted gold and silver. So it seems reasonable to conclude that the periodic table of elements—that wonky taxonomy of physical stuff such as copper, iron, mercury, and sulfur—is passé, no more relevant than a manual typewriter.

Except exactly the opposite is true. Matter still matters. And on the 150th anniversary of the periodic table’s formulation by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, it’s more important than it’s ever been.  True, technology has made the economy more virtual, but it’s also vastly increased the capability and sophistication of material objects. Much of the enhanced efficacy of jet engines, computer chips, and medicines comes down to what they’re made of: the elements. Need a super strong magnet for a hard disk drive? Try neodymium. A material to absorb neutrons in a submarine’s nuclear reactor? Hafnium. A spark-proof wrench? Beryllium. A contrast agent for magnetic resonance imaging? Gadolinium. Even Fuller’s ephemeral world of software and ideas lives on very real computers, servers, and fiber-optic networks, which are built from Mendeleev’s famous table.

Over the past century and a half, but particularly since World War II, scientists and engineers have learned to treat the periodic table like a banquet table—a bountiful spread from which to pluck what they need. There’s scandium in bicycle frames, tin (stannous fluoride) in toothpaste, tungsten in catheters, and arsenic in some computer chips. We are well past the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age, and into the Everything Age, because almost every entry on the periodic table is being put to some kind of use in today’s economy (excluding synthetic elements that are costly to make and highly radioactive, such as einsteinium).

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