What is Boron?
Elemental Boron is a metalloid, however, this chemical element is rarely found in an uncombined form. Instead, it is found in the earth, concentrated in naturally occurring compounds, known as Borate Minerals. It exists as a number of allotropes, which include an amorphous dark brown powder and a more crystalline, lump-like format that is silvery/black in colour.
Properties of Boron
Crystalline, pure Boron acts as a semiconductor, conducting electricity like a metal at high temperatures, but at room temperature or lower, it is a poor electrical conductor, acting almost like an insulator. This crystalline form is also extremely hard but can be brittle to use in tools. Filaments of this material have high strength, yet are extremely lightweight.
Crystalline Boron is almost chemically inert at regular temperatures. On the other hand, Amorphous Boron is used as a rocket fuel igniter and in pyrotechnics, where its burning produces a distinctive green colour in the flares. Boron-10, a naturally occurring isotope of the material, is good at absorbing neutrons, therefore it can be used in a regulating, shielding role in nuclear reactors, or in instruments used to detect neutrons.
Naturally occurring and synthetically created compounds of Boron (with elements such as Carbon, Nitrogen, Hydrogen, Sodium, Silica and a number of metals) each have unique properties, making them both highly valuable in a number of industries and specific applications.
Applications and Benefits
The material and its compounds are used in products across industries such as medicine, material development, cleaning products, cookware, nuclear waste storage and space exploration. Of these, some of the most important and familiar compounds are Boric (or Boracic) Acid, Borax (Sodium Borate) and Boric Oxide. These are used in a number of medicines such as eye drops, antiseptics, soaps, detergent powders, cosmetics and enamel tile glazes. Borax, a common household product, is used to make bleach, as a food preservative, as a fire retardant and as an anti-fungal compound.
Boric Oxide is used in the manufacture of Borosilicate Glass (well known by brand names such as Pyrex). The presence of Boric Oxide makes this glass tough and thermally shock resistant, giving it signature qualities and applications. Almost half of all pure Boron that is consumed globally, especially the compound Boric Oxide, is used as an additive to Fiberglass, used in textiles, structural material or insulation.
Boron is often added to metals to create special purpose alloys, and also to polymers and ceramics to create high-strength, lightweight, structural and refractory materials.
What is Boron Steel, and what is it used for?
The addition of a small amount of Boron to Steel (usually less than 1%) leads to the creation of ultra high-strength alloys known as Boron Steels. The basic effect of Boron in the steel is the enhancement of hardenability, which is evident even at a very small concentration, such as 0.0010% of Boron. These Steels are used frequently in the automotive industry in various situations, including for strengthening frameworks around car doors, and in reclining seats. Boron Steel is also used in other industries, such as in fiberglass insulation manufacturing, aerospace, or to create equipment for golfing and fishing.
Boron in Art and Design
Artists and designers use Boron and its compounds in a number of creative and innovative ways. Borosilicate Glass, a strong, resilient and formable material, offers creatives the opportunity to create large-scale, complex, delicate and challenging glass products and installations. Borosilicate glazes can also be used to create high gloss and beautiful finishes on ceramics.
Artists frequently use Borates in a number of other enamelled and decorative glazes, such as Raku. The compound Borax is used in unusual and beautiful artworks and installations where it crystallizes or ‘freezes’ forms in a state of motion, playing a role in both their conservation and in immortalising moments in time.