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IYPT Elements

IYPT 2019 Elements 041: Niobium: Particle accelerators and corrective glasses

Element 41 in our International Year of the Periodic Table series is niobium. A hypoallergenic metal, it’s found in superconducting magnets in particle accelerators, as well as in the glasses many of us wear to correct our vision.

Some metals, such as nickel, can cause allergic reactions in some people when in contact with the skin. Some metals, including titanium and niobium, are designated as ‘hypoallergenic’, meaning they have a decreased tendency to cause allergic reactions. This property of niobium means it’s used (along with some of its alloys) in prosthetics, pacemakers and jewellery.

Niobium also finds use coupled with titanium in superconducting magnets. These superconducting magnets only function at low temperatures, often reached by cooling them with liquid helium. These magnets find uses in particle accelerators, and MRI scanners in hospitals.

If you wear glasses, there’s a chance that you’re carrying around a fair number of niobium atoms with you. This is because niobium oxide is used in the lenses of some glasses. Adding it to glass increases the glass’s refractive index, allowing the lens to be made thinner, and making the glasses lighter.

Remember, you can keep track of all of the previous entries in this series on the site here, or on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s dedicated page.