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Chemical Element - A Survey Of The Elements

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Of the 114 currently known elements, 11 are gases, two are liquids, and 101 are solids. (The transuranium elements are presumed to be solids, but since only a few atoms at a time can be synthesized it is impossible to be sure.) Many elements, such as iron (Fe), copper (Cu), and aluminum (Al), are familiar everyday substances, but many are unfamiliar, either because they are not abundant on Earth or because they are not used much by human beings. Less-common naturally occurring elements include dysprosium (Dy), thulium (Tm) and protactinium (Pa).

Every element (except a few of the transuranium elements) has been assigned a name and a one- or two-letter symbol for convenience in writing formulas and chemical equations; these symbols are shown above in parentheses. For example, to distinguish the four elements that begin with the letter c, calcium is symbolized as Ca, cadmium as Cd, californium as Cf, and carbon as C.

Many of the symbols for chemical elements do not seem to make sense in terms of their English names—Fe for iron, for example. Those are mostly elements that have been known for thousands of years and that already had Latin names before chemists began handing out the symbols. Iron is Fe for its Latin name, ferrum. Gold is Au for aurum, sodium is Na for natrium, copper is Cu for cuprum, and mercury is Hg for hydrargyrum, meaning liquid silver, which is exactly what it looks like, but is not.

Table 1 lists some of the most common and important chemical elements. Note that many of these are referred to in the last column as metals. In fact, 93 out of the 114 elements are metals; the others are nonmetals.

Notice that only two elements taken together—hydrogen and helium—make up 99.9% of the atoms in the entire universe. That is because virtually all the mass in the universe is in the form of stars, and stars are made mostly of H and He. Only H and He were produced in the big bang that began the universe; all other elements have been built up by nuclear reactions since that time, either naturally (in the cores of stars) or artificially (in laboratories). On Earth, only three elements—oxygen, silicon and aluminum—make up more than 87% of the earths's crust (the rigid, rocky outer layer of the planet, about 10.5 mi [17 km] under most dry land [less under the oceans]). Only six more elements—hydrogen, sodium, calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium—account for more than 99% of Earth's crust.

The abundance of an element can be quite different from its importance to humans. Nutritionists believe that some 24 elements are essential to life, even though many are fairly rare and are needed in only tiny amounts.

Chemical Element - History Of The Elements [next]

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