Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Brent. Brent Wonders, “Where does gallium come from?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Brent!
How familiar are you with the periodic table? Most people know about common elements like hydrogen and oxygen. Maybe you’ve heard of a few others like gold and silver. But there’s one up-and-coming element that many people don’t know much about. What are we talking about? Gallium!
First found in 1875, gallium was named for the Latin word for “France,” which is “Gallia.” French scientist Paul-Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran discovered gallium while working with zinc ore. Since then, gallium has been mined in China, Germany, and Kazakhstan.
In nature, gallium is difficult to find. It makes up about 0.0019 percent of Earth’s crust. And it is never found on its own! Instead, it has to be separated from other materials through a process called smelting.
You might already know that elements fit into three categories. They can be metals, , or nonmetals. Gallium is a metal, but it has some pretty unique properties. For example, it has a very low melting point. It melts and becomes a liquid at 85ºF (29ºC). In fact, if you picked up a solid piece of gallium, it would melt in your hand.
Even in its solid state, gallium is very soft, much like aluminum. You could cut through it with a knife. And although it melts easily, it’s much harder to boil. You would need to heat this metal to 3,999ºF (2,204ºC) to make it boil.
How would you know gallium if you saw it? When it’s first smelted from iron ore, gallium is bright silver. But as a solid metal, it turns blue-grey. It’s also brittle and looks a bit like glass. If gallium has been melted and cooled several times, it may feel smooth.
What is this unique element used for? Most gallium is used in electronics. It’s common in semiconductors, transistors, and very small electronic devices. Gallium is able to turn electricity into light, so it’s also used to make LEDs. It can also be used to make thermometers and mirrors. Gallium isn’t used for human or animal consumption but is non-toxic.
Many believe gallium may have more future uses. When it’s mixed with arsenic, it creates gallium arsenide. This compound is similar to silicon. Some people believe it may one day be used in smartphones and computers.
What other uses for gallium can you think of? Will this soft metal stay in the world of electronics? Or will it have other uses? Only time—and lots of trial and error—will tell!
Standards: NGSS.PS1.A, NGSS.PS1.B, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.W.2, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.L.2, CCRA.SL.1