Fluorine: Facts, Properties & Uses

Instructor: Amanda Robb
In this lesson, we'll learn about what the element fluorine is and what some of its properties are. We will also go over historical and current uses for fluorine.

What is Fluorine?

Have you ever gone to the dentist and gotten a fluoride treatment? Or maybe you've heard about fluoride mouthwashes, or the debate about adding fluorine to water? You might have glossed over this chemistry term before, but today, we're going to investigate the exciting element known as fluorine.

So what makes it exciting? Did you know, for example, that pure fluorine can combust steel wool on the spot, or that fluorine is used in making nuclear material for bombs and energy sources? Yep, the same fluorine we put on our teeth is used to make nuclear bombs. The secret is in the chemistry of fluorine, which is what we're going to learn about today.

Chemistry of Fluorine

Fluorine is an element, and elements are characterized by what each atom in it looks like. Each atom has a nucleus, and then tiny negatively charged particles that float around it, called electrons. Fluorine has nine electrons total. There are two that orbit close to the nucleus, and the other seven hang out further away. This is a very important fact because all atoms want to have eight outer electrons. They'll do anything to get that eighth one, just like a comic book collector trying to get the last issue in the series, to make their collection complete.

To try to complete the outer orbit, fluorine bonds, or makes a connection with, other atoms. Fluorine is desperate, and extremely reactive. It will bond with any other atom to get that last electron, much like our comic book collector might pay a small fortune for the last issue he needs. Below is an image of the atom fluorine.

Fluorine is missing one outer electron, making it very reactive
fluorine atom

Properties of Fluorine

Fluorine is a pale yellow, gaseous element at room temperature. It has nine electrons, as discussed before, and pure fluorine gas is extremely reactive. It will attack any metal trying to get that last electron, destroying the metal in the process. It also is extremely explosive and toxic to living things. Because of this, there is very little fluorine gas found in nature. It exists bound to other atoms, and scientists need to do chemical experiments to get fluorine by itself. Below is an image of a laboratory set up to handle fluorine gas. Special metals and airflow patterns are used to protect scientists from exposure.

Fluorine is very reactive and special precautions must be used to work with it.
laboratory equipment for fluorine

Pure fluorine only forms a solid at -219 degrees Celsius. However, fluorine can react with other compounds to form solids, such as copper fluoride, shown below.

Fluorine can be reacted with metals to form solids
copper fluoride

Uses for Fluorine

Like we talked about earlier, the range of uses for fluorine is enormous! But fluorine gas is reactive and toxic, so most of the uses involve binding fluorine to other elements. Uranium hexafluoride is a compound used to make nuclear material for reactors and to create electricity for our homes. Sulfur hexafluoride is a gas used to insulate electrical equipment in the large transformers that bring energy from the power plant to our house. Below, crystals of uranium hexafluoride are sealed in a glass tube.

Uranium hexafluoride is used in nuclear reactors
uranium hexafluoride

Hydrofluoric acid is a strong acid used to etch glass. People using hydrofluoric acid must be extremely careful as the acid can eat through surfaces, even completely through tables and through skin. Protective gear needs to be worn when working with this chemical, or burns can result.

Hydrofluoric acid can cause serious burns due to the reactivity of fluorine
hydrofluoric acid burns

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