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What is Antimony? - Definition, Uses & Facts

Instructor: Danielle Reid

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

Did you know antimony is used for a variety of products such as batteries, glasses, and pottery? Explore this lesson to learn about this fascinating metal. Understand what antimony is and discover some interesting facts.

Introduction to Antimony

If we step back in time, back to biblical periods (both A.D. and B.C.), compounds and minerals containing antimony were used for a variety of purposes. Today, the products containing antimony (or antimony compounds) are quite diverse. From ancient Egyptian mascara to the current production of flame-retardant materials, antimony is very useful. But what is antimony, why the name, what are its properties, and, more importantly, who discovered antimony? Let's tackle the answer to these questions by beginning our exploration with the background and chemical properties of antimony.

Chemical Background and Properties of Antimony

Antimony is a chemical element that is recognized by its distinctive atomic symbol of Sb. This atomic symbol is derived from the Latin name for antimony, stibium. The atomic number of antimony is 51 and its atomic weight of 121.8g/mol. Classified as a metalloid, you can spot antimony on the periodic table next to metalloid neighbors arsenic (As) and tellurium (Te). A metalloid is a chemical element that has a mixture of properties between a metal and nonmetal.

Interestingly, the name antimony has a unique and very fitting origin. Antimony is derived from the Greek terms anti and monos. When put together these terms mean 'not alone.' Now, why is this fitting? Well, the native (i.e. elemental) form of antimony is not highly abundant in nature, but it is found in a more than 100 different mineral sources. One common mineral source includes an ore called stibnite. Antimony is also found in chemical compounds such as antimony (II) sulfide.

With regards to its properties, antimony is a poor conductor of both heat and electricity. Described as brittle, it can easily transform into a powdery substance. Antimony is characterized as having a silvery-white, shiny color. Regarding the toxicity of antimony (or antimony containing compounds), this greatly depends on the state of the element and amount a person is exposed to.

Although the metallic form of antimony is relatively non-toxic (at low levels), certain antimony compounds (such as SbH3 and Sb2H3) are highly toxic. If exposed to antimony at high levels, irritation to your lungs, eyes, and skin can occur. Even worse, inhaling antimony for long periods of time can result in severe damage to your lungs and/or heart.

Studies Attributed to the Discovery of Antimony

There seems to conflicting beliefs as to who deserves the credit of discovering antimony. It is believed that during biblical times (A.D.), a Roman scholar by the name of Pliny came across antimony in the form of a mineral ore called stibium. If we fast forward to between the 1500s and 1700s, it is certain that two scientists contributed most of the work to our overall understanding of antimony: Italian metallurgist Vannoccio Biringuccio and French chemist Nicolas Lemery.

The year of 1540, Vannoccio Biringuccio published his chemistry findings on antimony and its properties. During the 1700s, French chemist Nicolas Lemery published a famous book entitled, 'Treatise on Antimony.' This book detailed several properties as well as important findings related to antimony.

The Many Uses of Antimony

Not surprising, given the origin of its name, antimony is most often used to make alloys. An alloy is formed when different metals (and/or nonmetals) are mixed together. When alloyed with other metals, antimony is known to increase the hardness of a product. The fishing tackle (strapped to the end of your fishhook) is made of an alloy called lead-antimony. Lead storage batteries you may find in your car contain antimony. Our pocket calculators, computer games, and portable stereos have small amounts of antimony present in an electrical component called a transistor.

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