Trace Elements: Definition & Explanation

Trace Elements: Definition & Explanation
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  • 0:00 Major Elements vs.…
  • 1:20 Trace Elements In…
  • 2:15 Trace Elements In Our Bodies
  • 3:15 Harmful Trace Elements…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Lange

Amy has taught university-level earth science courses and has a PhD in Geology.

In this lesson, you will learn the definition of trace elements and their importance in many different systems. We will introduce the topics of trace elements in earth science, the human body, and the environment.

Major Elements vs. Trace Elements

When you bake a cake while following a recipe, you will add a lot of some ingredients, such as flour and sugar, and only a tiny amount of others, like baking powder and vanilla. Since the flour and sugar make up the bulk of the cake, they can be thought of as the major elements. The trace elements would be the components that only make up a small portion of the total cake, such as the baking powder.

Since scientists like to quantify these distinctions, a limit was established to determine the boundary between trace and major elements. Major elements are elements that make up more than 0.1% by weight of a substance. Trace elements are elements that make up less than 0.1% by weight, or 100 parts per million, of a substance.

The distinction between trace elements and major elements is made when considering a total composition of a particular substance. Elements by their nature are not trace or major elements. On the contrary, whether an element is a trace or major species depends on the particular substance we are interested in. For instance, iron is a trace element in tooth enamel, but a major element in the majority of volcanic rocks.

Although trace elements may not be plentiful within the object of interest, they can play extremely important roles in understanding the history of things and can also be extremely important to certain biological functions. The rest of this lesson will examine the role of trace elements in a variety of fields.

Trace Elements in Earth Science

The earth's crust is overwhelming composed of only about 10 elements, including oxygen, silicon, aluminum, and iron. However, the trace elements in the earth's crust have driven our economy and allowed for the development of new technology.

An excellent example is the use of gold in human civilization. Gold is the 73rd most abundant element on Earth, out of 118 identified elements. The concentration of gold within the earth's crust is only 0.003 parts per million. Gold has been valued over many millennia for its beauty and ability to be easily cast and molded. Because of the limited quantity of gold in the earth's crust and portability, it has long been used as a currency.

In modern society, many technological advances would be impossible without the use of trace elements within our crust. For instance, an oxide of indium, present as only 0.052 parts per million of the earth's crust, is used to coat the screens of our mobile devices to make the touch-screen technology possible.

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