Fluorine (F) is the most chemically reactive element and most electronegative element of all the elements. Fluorine is a Group 17 element, situated at period 2 and the 9th element in the Periodic Table. Even with its extreme reactivity, fluorine has many useful applications. In fact, it is the reactivity of fluorine that makes it such an important industrial chemical. Knowing facts about fluorine helps to understand its danger as well as important uses.
History and facts about Fluorine
Fluorine is said to have been discovered by Henri Moissan in France in 1886, when he isolated the chemical. But in reality, the existence of the chemical was known since at least the 1500s, when it was used in iron smelting. Fluorine was used in the 1670s to etch glass, but the recipe of what was then known as “Bohemian Emerald,” according to Web Elements, exploded when the fluorine was mixed with hydrogen.
Chemists in the 19th century knew that metal fluorides contained an element which was similar to chlorine, but were unable to isolate the element. Humphry Davy was not only unable to isolate the chemical, but when he attempted to isolate it from hydrofluoric acid, he became quite ill. In addition to becoming sick, The Chemical Heritage Magazine says that he suffered both fingernail and eye damage from attempting to isolate fluorine. He was not the only chemist to suffer the ill effects from working with fluorine. Brothers George and Thomas Knox “suffered severe hydrogen fluoride poisoning.” Two chemists actually died and George Gore caused several explosions when producing fluorine. When Fluorine was finally isolated by Moissan, by means which the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) describes "by the electrolysis of potassium bifluoride dissolved in liquid HF," Moissan was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry.
French scientist Andre Ampere first used the term “Fluorine” in 1812.
The name “Fluorine” is derived from the Latin “fluere” which means “to flow.”
One fluorine atom has nine protons and nine electrons. There are two shells of electrons, with two in the inner shell and seven in the outer shell. The outer electrons are separate from each other, and therefore they do not shield each other from the nucleus. The chemistry of fluorine atoms is that of the attraction to gain one more atom to achieve a stable arrangement. Fluorine has only one stable isotope, 19-Fluorine. It is a poisonous, corrosive, pale yellow halogen, with a noticeable pungent odor. Fluorine is the lightest of the halogen elements. It readily forms compounds with other elements. Fluorine, according to “Fluorine Element Facts,” is the most electronegative element and the most chemically reactive of the elements. It reacts violently with water. When fluorine gas is allowed to flow onto a brick, the brick ignites. Rubber and wood also bursts into flames when held to a stream of fluorine. Fluorine gas attacks all metals quickly. However, as HyperPhysics explains, copper and steel “become coated with a thin layer of copper fluoride or iron fluoride and resist further attack.“ It is because of this that steel tanks can be used to transport fluorine. The reactivity of fluorine is one of the reasons it is such a desirable industrial chemical. Fluorine has several industrial applications.
Fluorine at work
Fluorine was not produced in commercially in large quantities until World War II when it became necessary to produce large quantities of it. It has important applications in the nuclear power industry. Fluorine and its compounds are used in the making of uranium. Fluorochemicals are utilized in the manufacture of several high-temperature plastics such as Teflon. Hydrofluoric acid is capable of dissolving glass and is used in etching glass in light bulbs. Fluoride is added to many toothpastes and to water supplies to aid in cavity prevention.
Fluorine in nature
Fluorine is naturally found primarily in the minerals fluorspar and in cryolite. It is the 13th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. Lenntech explains that hydrogen fluorides can be released into the air “through combustion processes in the industry.” Although fluorine particles can remain in the air for a long time, eventually they will drop onto land or in water. When fluorine ends up in soil, it can only change form, but cannot be destroyed. Fluorine may accumulate in plants. Animals that eat plants which contain large amounts of fluorine may in turn accumulate too much fluorine in their bodies. This can not only cause health issues for that animal but can contribute to low birth weight and possibly other issues for offspring.
While one source, Lenntech, indicates the main mining areas for fluorite as China, Western Europe and Mexico, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), under the “Supply Risk” dropdown, lists China, South Africa and Mexico as the top three mined countries, with China being the country with both the largest base reserve and largest producer. The top 3 countries in order of production are China, Mexico and Mongolia.
Fluorine caused many injuries and even death to early chemists. Even once isolated, the dangers related to fluorine were not fully recognized. Although it is the most highly reactive of all elements, it is that reactivity that makes it have many uses in the industrial world. Although very useful today, fluorine is still very dangerous and can be highly toxic to plants, animals and also to humans.