What is Barium? - Definition, Uses & Formula

Instructor: Danielle Reid

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

Did you know the element barium was given its name because it was so big? Explore this lesson to learn all about barium and its common uses. When you are through, take a short quiz to see just how much of an expert you are about all things barium.

What Is Barium?

Did you know there is a stone that glows in the dark for years and emits a red color when heated? There sure is! This is all because of an element named barium. Found in stones and photography paper, paints and concrete, there is no denying barium's popularity. Barium is an element that was first isolated by an English scientist named Sir Humphry Davy in 1808. However, years before this discovery, scientists had a hunch that minerals of barium, called barite, were present in the famous Bologna stones. These stones were quite popular in Italy, as they would glow red for years after being exposed to light in the presence of charcoal. It wasn't until 1808, that the hunch was confirmed to be true!

As shown in Diagram 1, the symbol for barium is Ba. The atomic number is 56. It belongs to a family on the periodic table named group IIA. Part of this awesome family, the relatives in this group are called the alkaline earth metals. So what does this fancy term mean?

Diagram 1: Barium As Shown On The Periodic Table

Alkaline earth metals have the amazing power to remain a solid if you try to melt them at really, really, really high heat. What a cool property! Other relatives of barium in this family are beryllium (Be), magnesium (Mg), calcium (Ca), strontium (Sr), and radium (Ra).

Before we look at barium's physical properties, you may be wondering why the name barium? So glad you asked. There is actually a reason why barium is called….well, barium. It has to do with its size. With an atomic mass of 137.327 g/mol, barium is one hunky chunk of an element. This interesting trait played a role in its naming, as the Greek word for heavy is 'barys.' It is this Greek word that led to the creation of the name barium.

Physical and Chemical Properties of Barium

So you already know the cool features of barium; it can glow and won't melt at very high temperatures. What about its other physical properties? If you ever happen to run into pure barium, you will see that it is a pale yellow color with a shiny tint to it. However, you'll never find pure barium in nature - it reacts with air or water instantly and becomes a barium compound! Another thing to remember about barium is that not only is it an alkaline metal, but it is also malleable. Malleable means that you could hammer barium into a thin sheet of metal.

Barium has a melting point of 700C and boiling point of 1500C. If you had to guess, what color do you think barium would give off if you heated it? If you guessed a pale yellowish-green hue, you are right!. Confirming this property is one creative method scientists might use to figure out whether or not they are working with barium.

Before we get off the subject of properties, we most certainly have to discuss barium's chemical properties. Remember that barium is one active metal. Barium absolutely loves to hang out and combine with other elements. Its favorite friends are oxygen, halogens (like chlorine, bromine, and iodine), and non-metals. Surprisingly, barium will even form a friend alliance with water and acids. To demonstrate just how reactive barium is, when storing this element, it must be mixed with an oily liquid to prevent it from mingling with its buddy, oxygen, in the air.

Barium's Atomic Structure

It's official - you are an expert on the who and what of the element barium. But, did you know barium can also be an ion? Yes, it is true! An ion is an element that gains or loses electrons to become charged. The element barium (Ba) is neutral. This just means as an element it has a zero charge (atomic structure shown in diagram 2a). But what causes this element to become an ion?

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