You’re probably familiar with the periodic table of elements, which adorns the wall of every high-school science classroom. This comprehensive table charts elements by categories and characteristics, and even leaves room for synthetic elements yet to be created. The elements are the basic building blocks for chemistry, scientific development, and the entire universe.
But beyond the chemistry lab, most elements appear in everyday tech gear, too. We’ve researched each element to learn more about its properties and typical uses, and found common products that spawn from that element. From iPhones to microwave ovens, from alkaline batteries to camera lenses, and from hybrid-car fuel cells to plasma HDTVs, everything starts with elements. Here’s the breakdown.
2. Helium serves as a cooling agent for such common products as the Bulldozer CPU, and it helped to cool a CPU that broke the overclocking world record.
3. Lithium is found in batteries for small electronics. For instance, lithium-based batteries are found inside the Apple iPhone 5.
4.Beryllium is used in the manufacture of high-frequency speaker drivers. Occasionally products will be marketed as containing beryllium, yet they may not. You’ll most likely find beryllium in high-end home applications, such as the Pioneer S-4EX speaker system.
5.Boron, like silicon or germanium, is a common doping agent in semiconductors. In English, that means small traces of boron are added to other elements to alter their properties. This is a crucial step in the production of CPUs such as the Intel Core-i5 quad-core desktop processor.
6.Carbon: PC makers frequently use carbon fiber in laptop chassis designs because it is lightweight, and improved manufacturing techniques are reducing the cost and time necessary to make this material. The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon laptop has a carbon-fiber shell.
7. Nitrogen acts as a cooling agent in some extreme cases, particularly in overclocking a PC—the process of pushing your computer components harder and faster than the manufacturer designed them to go. If you’re planning to do some extreme overclocking, you’re going to need to buy special equipment for using liquid nitrogen with your PC.
8.Oxygenis used in the production of pretty much everything, but its liquid form is used to make polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. Many screen protectors for touchscreen smartphones and tablets, like BodyGuardz Classic screen protectors, are made of PET.
9.Fluorinereacts with glass and acts as an etching chemical, removing unwanted film buildup in glass production. It’s used in the production of LCD desktop monitors and TVs, including the line of Kyocera Display TFT monitors.
10. Neon: Back in the 1920s, the first commercially available television sets contained neon in their TV tubes. Today, neon is found in plasma TVs such as the Panasonic Smart Viera Plasma HDTV, Class ST50.
11.Sodium: Alternative energy production methods use sodium-sulfur batteries. The town of Presidio, Texas, uses a large sodium-sulfur battery as the emergency backup energy source.
14. Silicon: CPU makers construct their chips using silicon as a “scaffolding” of sorts, and they dope certain other parts of silicon with small quantities of other elements to make it more susceptible to conducting electricity. Intel offers a cool infographic that shows how a CPU is made; it all starts with sand, which has a high percentage of silicon dioxide.
15. Phosphorus is commonly used in fluorescent light bulbs.
16. Sulfur: As listed under sodium (11),sodium-sulfur (NaS) batteries play a role in alternative energy production methods. Tokyo’s power plants used NaS batteries to generate additional power during the peak summer energy demands in 2010.
18.Argoncan glow either bright blue or bright green, so argon ion lasers are a common feature in laser light shows.
19. Potassium: Potassium bromide (potassium combined with bromine) acts as a black-and-white film-developing agent in film photography. It improves the differentiation between exposed and unexposed crystals of silver halide, and thus reduces fog. You can purchase potassium bromide as developer formula.
21.Scandiumis used in the bulbs in metal halide lamps, which produce a white light source with a high color rendering index that resembles natural sunlight. These lights are often appropriate for the taping of television shows.
22. Titanium, a strong metal, serves as a tech construction material. The old Apple PowerBook G4 had a titanium edition made of this metal.
23. Vanadium: Although rechargeable vanadium redox batteries haven’t caught on commercially yet, they are acclaimed as being instrumental in renewable-energy plans.
24. Chromium is a transition metal and has a variety of industrial uses due to its toughness and its high resistance to heat and corrosion. Vinyl-record lovers should note that RCA Victor record player needles are based on chromium.
25. Manganeseis essential to the alkaline battery. Such batteries work due to a reaction between zinc and manganese dioxide. Any common alkaline battery—such as those of the Duracell and Energizer brands—has manganese.
26.Iron: The strength and low cost of iron make it perfect for engineering applications, and iron compounds serve as an etchant for copper in the manufacture of printed circuit boards (such as the Sunstone PCB collection).
29. Copper is found in almost all electronics, as it is superior to comparative elements—like aluminum—in electricity and heat transfer. For example, take any stick of RAM and look at where it connects to the computer; all of those connections are made of copper.
30. Zinc is used in different types of batteries, such as the zinc-carbon battery (in which zinc is the case for the battery), the nickel-zinc battery (often found in cordless phones or digital cameras), and the zinc-air battery (commonly found in hearing aids, as well as in electrical vehicles).
32. Germaniumacts as a doping agent with silicon to increase its speed in CPU production. IBM and Georgia Tech push the boundaries of silicon-germanium CPUs by testing them at extreme temperatures.
33. Arsenic: Though not directly related to any tech product because of its toxicity, arsenic is commonly used in bronzing and pyrotechnics.
34. Selenium: The copper indium gallium selenide compound is used in the production of some solar cells, specifically the thin-film category. The Brunton Solaris 52 CIGS Foldable Solar Panel uses selenium (the “CIGS” in its name stands for copper indium gallium selenide).
35. Brominecompounds are used to make the light-sensitive component of photographic emulsion—without bromine compounds, photographs would not capture sufficient light. One such product is Kentmere bromide photo paper.
36. Kryptongas is whitish in color, so krypton-based light bulbs are useful in photography as a brilliant white light source. Krypton is often used in high-speed photography.
37. Rubidium: Although this item is more for hobbyists, rubidium is used in atomic clocks as a reference. You can buy a Rubidium atomic clock on eBay.
39. Yttrium helps CRT televisions produce a red color. When used in a compound, it collects energy and passes it to the phosphor.
40. Zirconiumis extremely resistant to heat, so it’s ideal for space vehicles and aircraft. Jet-engine blades are manufactured with zirconium.
41. Niobium: Lithium niobate is used in mobile phone production, incorporated into surface acoustic wave filters that convert acoustic waves into electrical signals and make smartphone touchscreens work. SAW filters also provide cell signal enhancement, and are used to produce the Apple iPad 2.
42. Molybdenumis mainly used in steel production—it has the ability to withstand extremely high temperatures without changing shape. It is a component of armor, aircraft parts, industrial motors, filaments, and electrical contacts.
43. Technetium: Despite its name, technetium is used mainly in the medical industry. It serves as a medical tracer that doctors can detect in the human body with a gamma camera.
44. Ruthenium, when added to compounds, is used to make dye-sensitive solar cells, but those aren’t commercially available.
45. Rhodium: Like platinum (78), rhodium is used in catalytic converters for cars, but rhodium is specifically suited for diesel-powered vehicles.
46.Palladium is used to make multilayer ceramic capacitors. These take the form of squares or rectangles mounted on the surface of a printed circuit board; you’ll see them on most computer motherboards.
47. Silver is used to make high-quality connections, such as RF connections and coaxial cables. Plenty of cables have silver in their connectors.
48. Cadmium, used in the production of cadmium telluride photovoltaics, offers a cheap and efficient method of manufacturing solar panels. Though it isn’t widely available for commercial use, you can find some places to buy the panels online, including eBay (the term “CdTe” refers to the cadmium telluride compound).
50. Tin is widely used in solder, generally alongside lead, with an average ratio of 60 to 40 (lead to tin). Solder is found in just about every single electronic device.
51. Antimony: About 60 percent of antimony goes toward making flameproof compounds for children’s clothing, toys, and seat covers. A smaller use of antimony is as a fining agent to remove microscopic bubbles in glass, mostly for TV screens.
52. Tellurium: When paired with cadmium (48), tellurium creates cadmium telluride photovoltaics, and offers a cheap and efficient method of manufacturing solar panels.
53. Iodine: Potassium iodide and silver iodide, two different iodine compounds, are used in film photography. A layer of silver iodide sits directly on the film or photo paper and reacts with white light to complete the image.
55. Cesium is used in atomic clocks, which manage time in applications such as cell phone networks. Atomic clocks also aid in the timing of the information flow of the Internet. You can buy a Cesium atomic clock online, though it will cost quite a bit since it is more of a niche item.
56. Barium, typically as barium nitrate, is added to fireworks to turn them green.
57. Lanthanum helps produce nickel-metal hydride batteries, which most hybrid cars use. A typical hybrid battery for a Toyota Prius requires 22 to 33 pounds of lanthanum.
58. Ceriumis an essential component of phosphors present in TV screens.
69.Thulium is rare and expensive, so it’s found in few commercial products. However, it has acted as a power source for portable X-ray machines and in parts of microwave equipment.
70. Ytterbium isn’t widely used commercially, but this silvery metal is found in laser technology, specifically in wavelength-tunable solid-state lasers. These lasers cut silicon wafers for solar panels.
71.Lutetium: A tiny amount of this rare element is added to gadolinium gallium garnet (a synthetic crystalline material) to alter its electrical properties. In the early days of computers, the result contributed to a method of recording data in bubble-like magnetic regions on the surface of a chip. For a look at this vintage computing method, read up on Intel 7110-1 bubble memory.
73. Tantalum is present in capacitors for electronics, such as motherboards. Most motherboards, like the MSI Z68A-G43 (G3), feature tantalum capacitors.
74. Tungsten is a component of cathode ray tubes, or CRTs, which are found in monitors (like this old Dell CRT) and old-school TVs.
75.Rhenium: About 70 percent of the worldwide rhenium production goes to making jet-engine parts, due to its high melting point. Turbine blades for jet engines such as the Airbus A380 are made from rhenium.
76. Osmium alloys are really hard and don’t bend easily, so they contribute to the production of electrical contacts, which are the points in a circuit that allow a current to pass from one conductor to another. Every electronic device uses electrical contacts—that’s how electrical currents flow.
77. Iridiumalloys are resistant to arc erosion, so they’re used to make electrical contacts in spark plugs. Select Toyota models use iridium spark plugs.
78. Platinum: Apart from being crafted into fine jewelry, platinum is used in vehicle-emissions control systems, specifically in catalytic converters. Platinum is often the catalyst that converts the toxic by-products of combustion in the exhaust to a less toxic substance.
79. Gold serves as a connector in electronics, usually as a plating or covering, because of its high conductivity to electricity. A common use of gold plating is in headphone connections.
84. Polonium: Polonium serves as an atomic heat source, because it spontaneously heats up to about 932 degrees Fahrenheit. In the 1970s, scientists working for the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod used polonium to keep the internal components of moon rovers, specifically the Lunokhod 2 Moon Rover, warm during lunar nights.
85. Astatineis highly radioactive and is available only in tiny quantities, typically because it has a short half-life. It was named the rarest element on earth by the Guinness Book of World Records.
86. Radonis extremely radioactive and is considered a highly dangerous material, so it isn’t found or used in the production of common consumer items. However, it is sometimes employed to treat cancer, in the form of radiotherapy-implantable seeds.
Not sold in stores
The rest of the elements aren’t typically used for commercial product development, because they are too rare, too new, too expensive to produce, too dangerous, or all of the above. They’re mostly just the subjects of research for now, but some have potential applications in fuel, power, light, medical treatment, and more.
87. Francium is rare and considered unpredictable, so it hasn’t been used commercially yet. So far, it has been used only in research.
88. Radiumis extremely radioactive and produces serious medical side effects if humans have prolonged contact with it. Although it used to be a component of glow-in-the-dark paint, it is now considered too dangerous. However, equipment makers can use it in devices such as calibrators and lightning rods.
89.Actiniumis rare, expensive to produce, and highly radioactive, so it doesn’t have much commercial application. It’s mainly used for neutron production.
90. Thoriumcan act as a nuclear fuel source, and research and investment in thorium fuel began in 1996. On a commercial level, a thorium compound—thorium dioxide—is used in magnetron tubes, which are installed in microwave ovens.
91. Protactinium is highly radioactive, rare, and very toxic, so it currently has no uses outside of research.
92. Uranium is mostly used for nuclear power. Because it is highly radioactive, it isn’t widely employed in commercial products anymore—but it was used to color Fiestaware, a type of glass dinnerware, from 1936 to 1944.
93. Neptunium: There are no major commercial applications of neptunium, as it’s mostly used for research. It’s radioactive and harmful, but it is present in neutron detective equipment.
94. Plutoniumis highly radioactive and is commonly employed in nuclear weapons—the atomic bombing of Japan during World War II used nuclear bombs with a plutonium core. This element emits a lot of thermal energy, which makes it well suited for electrical power generation for devices that must function without direct maintenance for prolonged periods. As a result, plutonium has been used in radioisotope heater units in the Cassini, Voyager, and New Horizons space probes.
95. Americiumis a synthetic element commonly present in household smoke detectors. The americium compound passes through the smoke detector’s ionization chamber, which is an air-filled space between two electrodes, and permits a small, constant current between those electrodes. Any smoke that enters the chamber absorbs the alpha particles, which reduces the ionization and affects this current, which then triggers the alarm.
96. Curium: One of the most practical uses of curium isn’t in a commercial product, but in space exploration. Curium is employed in alpha particle X-ray spectrometers (APXS); these instruments were built on the Sojourner, Mars, Mars 96, Spirit, Athena, and Opportunity rovers, and were used to analyze surface rocks on Mars. The Curiosity rover currently on Mars also features an APXS with curium at the helm.
97. Berkeliumhas no practical application outside of scientific research.
98.Californiumis the heaviest element to occur naturally on earth. It mainly serves as a neutron startup source for nuclear reactors, but it is also used in radiation therapy for cervical and brain cancers.
99. Einsteiniumwas discovered as a component of the debris of the first hydrogen bomb explosion in 1952. It has no uses outside of scientific research.
100. Fermiumis a synthetic and highly toxic element. Owing to the small amounts of produced fermium and its short half-life, it currently has no uses outside of basic scientific research.
101. Mendelevium: Since only small amounts of mendelevium have ever been produced, it currently has no uses outside of basic scientific research.
102. Nobelium: Little is known about nobelium, and it has no uses outside of research.
103. Lawrenciumhas been produced in only tiny amounts and isn’t used commercially outside of research.
104. Rutherfordiumhas a short half-life and has been produced in only small quantities.
105. Dubnium: Named after Dubna, Russia, where it was discovered, dubnium is radioactive and considered harmful, and is only for research purposes.
106. Seaborgium: Only a few atoms of seaborgium have ever been made.
107. Bohriumis currently for research purposes only.
108. Hassium: Not enough hassium has been produced for mainstream commercial use. It’s for scientific research only.
109. Meitneriumis synthetic and radioactive, and used only for scientific research.
110. Darmstadtium: Another synthetic, radioactive element used exclusively for scientific research.
111. Roentgeniumis radioactive, harmful, and synthetic. It’s used for research.
113. Ununtrium: Fun fact—ununtrium is only the temporary name for this element. Ununpentium (115), ununseptium (117), and ununoctium (118) are also temporary names. Because two research teams have submitted claims to ununtrium’s discovery recently, a name has yet to be determined. This is another research-only element.
115.Ununpentium: Like elements 113, 117, and 118, ununpentium is just a temporary name, although this synthetic element has been discovered and reproduced. It is being used in research.
116. Livermorium: Like Flerovium (114), livermorium recently dropped its old moniker and accepted its official name in May 2012. It is used only in research.
117.Ununseptiumis a synthetic radioactive metal that has been produced in minute amounts. The first atoms of this element weren’t created until 2009, and it hasn’t been officially named yet.
118. Ununoctium: This synthetic element was believed to have been discovered in 2002, but in 2011 the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry determined that it didn’t have enough evidence to accept the findings as the discovery of this element. Therefore, this element remains unnamed and possibly undiscovered.