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Mineral Monday: Magnesium

If you’re anything like me, when you hear the word magnesium your mind is cast back to school chemistry lessons in which small pieces of magnesium were carefully lowered into the flame of a Bunsen burner to produce a brilliant, dazzling flash as the magnesium combusted.

But school memories aside, what are the origins of magnesium? The name magnesium is derived from the Greek word for a district in Thessaly called Magnesia. And it wasn’t until 1808 that the metal itself was first produced by Sir Humphry Davy.

Today magnesium finds a multitude of engineering and industrial uses; most notably in the aviation, automotive, and electronics sectors. Manufacturers to make widespread use of magnesium include Mercedes Benz, Porsche, Volkswagen Group, BMW, and Mitsubishi, utilising the element for engine parts, dash components and in-car electronics.

Magnesium’s low weight and excellent mechanical and electrical properties mean that it is increasingly in demand for use in mobile phones, laptops, tablets and cameras.

Despite comprehensive usage, magnesium metal and its alloys can be explosive hazards. Magnesium can be highly flammable when molten or in powder or ribbon form. It can also cause severe damage to the retina of a human eye when burnt due to the ultraviolet light that is produced.

Where is it produced / mined?
Mined in a variety of countries, the biggest global producer of magnesium is China; with approximately 80% of the world market share (661,000 tonnes in 2011). Other notable producers include the US, Russia, Israel, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Ukraine and Serbia.

Did you know?
• Magnesium is the 9th most abundant element in the Universe.
• Magnesium is needed for hundreds of biochemical reactions in the body. The average person needs 250-350 mg of magnesium each day or about 100 grams of magnesium per year.
• The most common commercial use of magnesium metal is as an alloying agent with aluminium. The resulting alloy is lighter, stronger, and easier to work than pure aluminium.
• Magnesium fires must be treated with caution. Adding water to them produces hydrogen, which makes the fire burn even more fiercely.
• If you try to put out a magnesium fire with carbon dioxide, you’ll also find yourself out of luck. Magnesium burns in both pure nitrogen and pure carbon dioxide, and a carbon dioxide fire-extinguisher will in fact feed a magnesium fire.
• About 13% of our planet’s entire mass comes from magnesium. This means there’s enough magnesium within Earth to make a planet of the same mass as Mars and have enough magnesium left over to make three more objects of the same mass as our moon.
• Magnesium is one of the six ‘macro-minerals’, major minerals needed by the body in larger amounts. The other five major minerals are calcium, sodium, potassium, phosphorous and chloride.