Chemistry history lesson: have you ever noticed that a lot of elements end in “–ium”?

In fact, at the time of writing this (early 2017), 79 of the 118 elements listed on the Periodic Table ended in “-ium.”  They are the following: helium, lithium, beryllium, sodium, magnesium, aluminum, potassium, calcium, scandium, titanium, vanadium, chromium, gallium, germanium, selenium, rubidium, strontium, yttrium, zirconium, niobium, technetium, ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, cadmium, indium, tellurium, cesium (caesium), barium, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium,  holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium, hafnium, rhenium, osmium, iridium, thallium, polonium, francium, radium, actinium, thorium, protactinium, uranium, neptunium, plutonium, americium, curium, berkelium, californium, einsteinium, fermium, mendelevium, nobelium, lawrencium, rutherfordium, dubnium, seaborgium, bohrium, hassium, meitnerium, darmstadtium, roentgenium, copernicium, nihonium, flerovium, moscovium, and livermorium.

A further four elements end in “-um”: molybdenum, lanthanum, tantalum, and platinum.

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Romans began naming elements ending in “-um,” a Latin suffix.  At some point, Anglo-Saxon (or Old English) speakers gave these elements new names.   For example, aurum became gold, and argentums became silver.  This Anglo-Saxon names stuck, though the element symbols pay tribute to their Latin names.  (That’s why gold is “Au” for aurum and silver is “Ag” for argentum.)  Later, as scientists were discovering new elements, they reverted back to the Roman style of naming and decided to end the names of many of these newly discovered elements with “-um” or “-ium,” a naming guide that has lasted to today.

In fact, Dr. Fabienne Meyers, Associate Director of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), the organization responsible for approving element names, stated, “For linguistic consistency, the recommended practice is that all new elements should end in ‘-ium’.”

(Obviously this rule can bent: recently discovered elements 117 and 118 have been named tennessine and oganesson, respectively.  Tennessine falls under the halogen column, all of when end in “-ine.”  Oganesson is placed in the noble gasses, which- save for one (helium)- end in “-on.”)

Thus, adamantium sounds like it could be a real element instead of the fictional substance in the Marvel Universe.  However, adamantium is not an element, but an alloy.

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According to Marvel, adamantium is “a virtually indestructible steel alloy named after the fabled metal Adamantine of Greek mythology.”  An alloy is a substance composed of two or more elements, with at least one of those elements being a metal.

Alloys are created to have improved properties compared to the elements that make them up.  They may be designed specifically to limit corrosion, avoid wear, and withstand temperature changes.  For example, iron is strong, but it’s brittle and can rust.  Adding carbon to iron creates steel, a harder and rust-proof material used for tools, weapons, utensils, and buildings.  Gold is too soft on its own to make jewelry, so it’s alloyed with copper, silver, and cobalt to make yellow gold jewelry or copper, zinc, nickel, and palladium to make white gold jewelry.  Combining copper and zinc creates brass, which is more malleable and can be shaped into musical instruments.

Alloys can be made in several possible ways.  For many alloys, the components are melted, mixed together, and cooled into a solid.  Some alloys are made by mixing powders together.  The powders are then fused under high pressure and temperature in a process called powder metallurgy.  A third alloy-making process is ion implantation, in which ions (atoms or molecules with a positive or negative net electrical charge) are fired onto the surface of a metal, causing them to bond with the metal.

In adamantium’s case, resins of an unknown composition (but presumably containing some type of metal) are mixed together.  By maintaining the temperature of the mixture at 1500 degrees Fahrenheit, adamantium alloy can be molded and formed.

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It’s claimed that the fictional adamantium can survive a direct hit from a nuclear weapon (or an attack from a superhuman), which made for the Weapon X Program, in living things were turned into living weapons.  The most famous subject of the project is Wolverine, also known as Logan.  In his early days, Logan simply had the natural power to heal himself quickly, regenerating damaged or destroyed tissues.  He also had bone claws that could be used for attacks.

Logan was kidnapped by the Weapons X Program and subjected to intense experimentation in which his skeleton was bonded with adamantium, Logan’s healing powers allowed him to survive the procedure, and his skeleton became essentially unbreakable.  His claws were similarly bonded with the adamantium, meaning they could cut through almost anything.  Furthermore, the adamantium reinforced his skeletal structure and allowed him to lift more than what his natural bones would have allowed.   According to the Marvel Wiki, Logan could lift 2 tons, or 4000 pounds.  So while Logan carries 105 pounds of adamantium, he’s more than capable of bearing the extra weight.  Coupling these abilities with his regenerative powers made Logan a lethal living weapon and very difficult to kill.

But can real-world alloys also be used with bio matter like the fictional adamantium was used in Wolverine?

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An article over at Live Science points out metal has already been bonded to organic tissue in nature.  Leaf-cutter ants and locusts have mandibles coated in zinc to make them stronger and durable.  Marine worms may have jaws formed from copper in their protein matrix.  The article also mentions that a group of researchers created toughened spider silk by shooting beams of ionized metal compounds beams at the silk spiders.  The metal ions coated and penetrated the silk, creating a strengthened silk-metal alloy.  For example, silk bonded with titanium required ten times the work to break compared to normal silk.

While that sounds more like Spider-Man technology, it’s not that far to make the leap to bond bones to alloys.

Titanium-based alloys are already used for body implants.  The titanium alloy does not corrode in the body.  It’s strong, lightweight, durable, and relatively cost-efficient.  Sounds a bit like we took one step closer to a Wolverine-style skeleton.

It gets better.

Titanschäume ersetzen verletzte Knochen

Researchers are constantly making new and improved alloys.  One newer technology under development is titanium foam.  The foam is an alloy made of titanium powder and polyurethane, making it strong, flexible, solid, and porous.  In other words, it mimics bone structure.  Furthermore, blood vessels and existing bone cells could then grow into and through the foam, essentially allowing organic matter to mix with the synthetic alloy.  The bone-foam can grow and adjust so that the “implant” is more sustainable and stable.

No word yet on researchers developing retractable claws.

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Keep calm and science on.

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