Bismuth is a metallic chemical element that is classified among the group of elements colloquially known as “poor elements” in the periodic table. This element has a number of uses, making it common in industrial applications. Many consumers own products which contain bismuth, although they may not necessarily interact with the element directly. The bulk of the world's supply comes from South America, and it is also extracted as a byproduct from the smelting of some metals.
In addition to occurring in various minerals, bismuth also can be found in pure form in nature. When it is pure, the element is white with a reddish tinge, and sometimes almost pink. It has a crystalline chemical structure that makes it extremely brittle, and it is rather unique among the elements for having a liquid state that is more dense than its solid; water shares this interesting property. On the periodic table of elements, bismuth is identified as Bi, and the element has an atomic number of 83.
The name for this element comes from the German Wismuth, which is derived from weiße Masse, which means “white mass.” The element was known in the ancient world, although it was sometimes confused with tin and lead. By the 1400s, people had begun to suspect that bismuth was a distinct chemical element, but it was not isolated until 1753. Claud Geoffroy is typically given credit for the identification of it as an element.
One of the most modern uses for bismuth is as a replacement for the more toxic lead in metal alloys and solder. It is also used in fire detection devices, because it has a very low melting point. The element's poor heat conduction and high electrical resistance make it useful for an assortment of applications, and the element is also used as a carrier for nuclear fuel. Some salts of bismuth are used in cosmetics and certain medications, as well.
This element is of low toxicity. As a general rule, people should avoid swallowing it and they should wash their hands after working with it. Face protection should be worn when melting or cutting bismuth, to avoid the inhalation of harmful fumes and vapors. Since some of its compounds can be toxic, consumers are also advised to follow all safety warnings and directions on products which contain these compounds.