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IYPT Elements

IYPT 2019 Elements 082: Lead: Batteries, bullets and toxicity

Element 82 in our International Year of the Periodic Table series is lead. Lead and its compounds have previously been used in petrol, water pipes and paints, though its toxicity has led many of its uses being discontinued. It’s still used in car batteries and bullets.

Lead has been known since antiquity and it and its compounds have seen a number of uses since. Tetraethyl lead was used as an anti-knocking agent in leaded petrol and other lead compounds were used in paints. Lead itself is still found in some water pipes, which can cause health issues if the correct water treatment agents are not used. In many cases, alternatives to lead compounds are now used in their previous applications, due to their toxicity.

One application for which lead continues to be used is in the lead-acid batteries found in cars. These batteries were the first commercially used rechargeable batteries, and provide the high current needed to start car motors. Worldwide, approximately 10 million tons of lead were used in the manufacture of lead-acid batteries in 2012, accounting for around 85% of lead used.

Lead’s use also continues in bullets, organ pipes, weight belts for diving, and cable sheathing.

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.