Gallium: Uses & Facts

Instructor: Danielle Reid

Danielle has taught middle school science and has a doctorate degree in Environmental Health

Did you know the light illuminating the number on your handheld calculator comes from a component containing gallium? Continue reading to learn how this is possible, what else gallium is used for, and other interesting facts.

The Story of Gallium

If you like your smartphone, calculator, and even that fast speed internet connection through a local area network (LAN), you can give thanks to one element -- gallium. Yes, you read that correctly. As a component, gallium plays a role in the production of each of these items. In other words, gallium is one 'smart' metal.

If we take a trip down history lane and land in the year of 1871, we will see that Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev was hard at work constructing the periodic table of elements. He predicted there was an element that had similar properties to aluminum. Four years later, in 1875, a French chemist named Paul-Emili Lecoq de Boisbaudran discovered this unknown element and named it gallium. Eureka!

Mendeleev's hunch about an element retaining similar properties to aluminum, in fact, proved to be true. Boisbaudran discovered gallium while conducting spectroscopy on a zinc-sulfide mineral called sphalerite. Spectroscopy is a type of scientific method used to study matter through the use of electromagnetic radiation that is absorbed, emitted, or scattered.

Image of the Mineral Sphalerite
sphalerite

Gallium: The Basic Facts

So now that we know a bit about how it was discovered, you might be wondering where gallium came from in the first place? Well, if we grab a sample of the Earth's crust and analyze it for the presence of gallium, we will easily see that gallium is not abundant in large amounts. Additionally, it is fairly rare to stumble across minerals containing high amounts of gallium. Luckily, in low amounts, you can find gallium in a variety of minerals, such as sphalerite, bauxite, and coal. For example, the bauxite ore can undergo mineral processing to collect gallium.

Sample of the Mineral Bauxite Ore
bauxite

If you happen to pull out a periodic table, you will notice that gallium has an atomic number of 31 and atomic weight of 69.72g/mol. The symbol for gallium is Ga. If a special trophy could be awarded to gallium, it would be in honor of a very unique property involving its melting point. It's actually one of four metals that can be a liquid at levels close to room temperature. The other metals in this distinguished club include mercury, cesium, and rubidium.

The purest form of gallium can be described as a gorgeous silvery color. If you see the solid form of gallium, it has a texture similar to glass. It is important to be careful when handling this solid form as it is brittle and can break very easily.

Silvery Appearance of Element Gallium in Solid Form
solid gallium

The Many Uses of Gallium

Earlier in our discussion we mentioned that a smartphone, and other devices, owe a big 'thank you' to gallium. Now how is this possible? Well, we have to focus on a compound that is made from gallium. This compound is called gallium arsenide. It's quite popular in the manufacturing industry, as it has the ability to convert electricity directly to light making it useful in the production of devices, such as smartphones, that require LEDs, or light emitting diodes.

Because gallium is a liquid at room temperature and is considered to be non-toxic, the medical industry can use gallium as a substitute for mercury in liquid thermometers. One of its other properties, its silvery color, makes gallium a great metal of choice to form metal alloys. For the term alloy, think of a type of material that is formed from two or more different metals. These alloys can be used to produce materials such as brilliant mirrors.

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