The inventor Buckminster Fuller once described technological progress as “ephemeralisation.” 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 sulphur—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 superstrong 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 fibre-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).
Cellphones exemplify the complexification. The first ones in the 1980s “were the size of a shoebox and consisted of 25 to 30 elements,” Larry Meinert, US Geological Survey deputy associate director for energy and minerals, said in 2017. “Today, they fit in your pocket or on your wrist and are made from about 75 different elements, almost three-quarters of the periodic table.” That may include tantalum from Rwanda, potassium from Belarus, silver from Mexico, tin from Myanmar, carbon from India, and germanium from China.
Nuclear medicine is another example, highlighted in a 2013 article in the journal Resources, Conservation & Recycling by Thomas Graedel and Aaron Greenfield of Yale’s Centre for Industrial Ecology. In 1936 doctors used isotopes of phosphorus and sodium to treat leukemia. In 1939 they pioneered an isotope of iodine for thyroid imaging and treatment. In 1957, xenon for lung ventilation studies. Around 1964, technetium for skeleton and heart muscle imaging. And so on up to 2008, when an isotope of lutetium came into use for prostate cancer applications.
In exploiting more of the elements available to us, we’re following the course of our evolution as a species. Over millions of years, our body has evolved to take advantage of 30 or more members of the periodic table, stuff from the environment that’s now incorporated in ourselves. Most of what we are— 96 per cent—is carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. But our bodies also use, and are composed of, calcium, chlorine, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and sulphur, plus trace amounts of boron, chromium, cobalt, copper, fluorine, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, silicon, tin, vanadium, and zinc, among others.
As our first factory, our bodies are a good role model for product engineers and materials scientists. One lesson is that quantities matter. Cobalt, for example, is part of vitamin B12, which is essential to protein formation and DNA regulation. But in excess, it’s a poison. Another lesson is that there’s still a lot to learn. Biologists are trying to figure out the usefulness, if any, of a couple of dozen other elements that are found in the body in even smaller quantities.
Before “better living through chemistry” became a slacker reference to recreational drug use, it was a slogan of DuPont, an earnest invocation of putting the periodic table to good use. There was a lot to be proud of. Modern chemists are a big step up from medieval alchemists, who futilely tried to transmute lead into gold. Mendeleev’s creation of the periodic table helped usher in a golden age of chemistry, in which Germany was an early leader. In 1910, German Carl Bosch scaled up his countryman Fritz Haber’s process for reacting nitrogen from the air with hydrogen to make ammonia, the main ingredient in fertilizer. Crop yields soared, making it possible to feed more people even with fewer people working on farms. If you work in an office today rather than on a farm, thank Haber, Bosch, and the fixation of nitrogen. (On the downside, Haber also weaponised chlorine as a poison gas in World War I).