Sunday, June 16, 2013

Niobe, Leto, Tantalus, Columbium, Tantalum, & Niobium

I've been doing a lot of work in my metal shop lately. I got curious about an interesting metal called niobium. It's a silky smooth, ductile, hypoallergenic, super conductor available in a variety of colors. So here's a brief history of niobium, it's unique characteristics, and the myth of Niobe.

Copper Earrings with Niobium Earwires

In 1801 English chemist Charles Hatchett discovered a new element, which he named columbium. Then in 1846, a German chemist identified what he thought was a new element and called it niobium. In the 1860s, it was determined that columbium and niobium were actually the same element; the names were used interchangeably until 1949 when niobium (Nb) was declared the official name for element #41. The name, niobium, was chosen due to the element's chemical similarity to tantalum (Ta). More about that later. 
Current world supplies of niobium come from two mines located in Canada and Brazil. Niobium is a physiologically inert element, its hypoallergenic properties make it ideal for jewelry, as well as for use in implanted medical devices. Niobium is naturally gray but can be colored by an anodization process. No dyes or coloring are used in this electrical process. Different colors are attained by varying the voltage, which effects the thicknesses of the oxidized coating, which in turn affects the wave length of the light reflected off the surface of the metal.

This unique material gets its name from Niobe, daughter of Tantalus. Dad was the mythical Greek king of the city of Sipylus and source of the scientific name for the element tantalum. Niobe suffered the wrath of the Titans for the crime of hubris. Apparently she made the mistake of boasting to Leto, the mistress of Zeus, that she had given birth to seven times as many children as the Titan had. Leto sent her two children, the twins Artemis and Apollo, to punish Niobe by killing her fourteen children. Niobe's husband, Amphion, was also murdered by Apollo when he swore to avenge the deaths of his children. Niobe herself was turned to stone, but that didn't stop her petrified eyes from continuing to weep tears of grief. Today, water seeps from the porous stone that forms "The Weeping Rock" in Turkey. This rock formation is said to be the petrified form of Niobe. Niobe's father, Tantalus, also evoked ire from the gods. He had been invited to share the food of the gods, but broke the rules when he shared ambrosia, the nectar of the gods, with other mortals. Tanatlus' perceived disrespect was punished with unending hunger and thirst. The king was placed in a body of water that drained away when he tried to drink and the fruit that hung from the trees above him was blown just out of reach when he tried to grasp it. Tantalus' name is the source of the verb to tantalize. Moral of the story . . . don't mess with the Titans!