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This is why niobium is the cutest element

Illustration for article titled This is why niobium is the cutest element

Remember when everyone was watching that hovering magnet shoot around on a superconductor track? This is what was helping it move. This cute little guy is niobium, an element that was in the process of being discovered for fifty years and today is put in superconducting magnets. Find out about its history, and give me your best captions for this day-glo caterpillar.


This adorable little guy is actually a crystal of niobium under a scanning electron microscope. Niobium is used fairly commonly now, as it is extremely heat-resistant and imparts this quality to the material it is alloyed with. Jewelry makers use it to keep their delicate creations from softening and getting ruined by body heat and inadvertent tugging. More interestingly, it's often alloyed with titanium to make superconducting magnets. These are the coils of wire that are shot through with electricity but have to be cooled drastically to work as superconductors. Niobium can also be a superconductor when paired with tin, aluminum, and all on its own. This is why isolating it is, now, so important. But isolating it is no easy task.

Niobium was, in a way, being discovered for about a century and a half. It was first spotted as the mineral columbite in 1809. Samples were sent across the globe. Years later, it was discovered that columbite was a amalgamation of two different elements, the already-discovered tantalum, and something else. Separating the two was incredibly different, as they were so close in weight and properties. It wasn't until 1864 that this new element — niobium — was isolated.


Those Greek mythology geeks recognize the naming of Niobium as an in-joke. Niobe was the daughter of Tantalus, who offended the gods by stealing their food, and then attempted to make it up to them by serving them his own son, chopped up and boiled for dinner. He was condemned to stand in a lake of water, with grapes above his head. When he reached up, the grapes would pull out of reach. When he leaned down, the water would drain away. This is where we get the word "tantalize." Niobe didn't fair much better. She had fifty sons and daughters, and bragged that she was better than Apollo and Artemis' mother, who had only had one of each. Apollo and Artemis then killed all Niobe's children, and she wept so much that the gods took pity on her and turned her into a stone. Her grief was so great that even the stone "wept" water.

Now with that bummer of a story out of the way, what is this little guy saying to us? I can't get pass "Y hello thar."

Image: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Via Physics Central.


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Dr Emilio Lizardo

"F'ing magnets. I'm how they work."