23. Vanadium: Beauty In The Background

From freeways to firefights to unfathomable depths, vanadium can often be found quietly doing the hardest work.

Featured above: The goddess Vanadis in her chariot pulled by cats. I have no idea.

Show Notes

But There Already Were Automobiles: Cars have been using lighter materials than vanadium steel for a long time now, but Element 23 might be making its way back into cars in the near future. Vanadium can be used to create new kinds of batteries that can be charged extremely efficiently, and can last for decades.

Northern Overexposure: It seems kind of unfair that we didn’t get an element with an etymologically Spanish name when we had the chance, since there are so very many elements named after Scandinavia. It might not seem like a lot yet, but just wait till we visit Ytterby.

Some Clarification: Some people would probably like me to point out that the “Tunicates eat their own brain thing” is not entirely accurate, because once they’re anchored in place, they do develop a new cerebral ganglion that’s actually much bigger than its old one.

Is that supposed to make it sound less incredible? Because I know that if I were to eat my own brain, I wouldn’t proceed to grow a new one that’s the size of a garage!

And it is pretty fair to draw the comparison between tunicates and humans, because we’re more closely related than you might guess. Tunicates and humans are both members of the phylum Chordata, the taxonomical group that includes all vertebrates.

Other fun facts about the tunicate: Some varieties group up to form vast colonies of organisms, and they can also reproduce by budding. This video includes some more trivia, and also some gorgeous aquarium photography:

Episode Script

We here at the Episodic Table of Elements are on the record as being firmly opposed to the Great Man Theory of scientific invention. We promote the less dramatic but more honest perspectives of multiple discovery and iterative invention. So it shouldn’t surprise you when we say that Henry Ford did not invent the assembly line.

It is true that the moving assembly line made its debut at the Highland Park Ford Plant in 1913, but that was the brainchild of more than a half-dozen of Ford’s employees — not Henry. William “Pa” Klann was inspired after visiting Swift & Company’s slaughterhouse in Chicago, where butchers handled carcasses on what was called a “disassembly line.”

Before that, Venetian ships were outfitted in stages as they floated down canals going as far back as 1100 CE. And for centuries before that, East Asian empires mass-produced farming tools, weapons, and armor.

Henry Ford didn’t really invent anything at all. But he did bring a lot of other people’s good ideas together for the first time, gathering inspiration from absolutely everywhere — including at least one scenario that most people might find rather gruesome. As he later wrote in McClure’s Magazine,

In 1905 I was at a motor race in Palm Beach. There was a big smash-up and a French car was wrecked. … After the wreck I picked up a little valve strip stem. It was very light and very strong. I gave the stem to my assistant. ‘Find out all about this,’ I told him. ‘That is the kind of material we ought to have in our cars.'”1

That material was a special alloy of steel that included a small amount of vanadium, making it incredibly strong and light. The material wound up being so critical in the construction of the Model T that Ford dramatically declared, “But for vanadium, there would be no automobiles!”2 3

That seems to be how things go for Element 23. It diligently performs critical duties in the background, rarely noticed, barely even known, and usually, someone else seems to get the credit.

You’re listening to The Episodic Table Of Elements, and I’m T. R. Appleton. Each episode, we take a look at the fascinating true stories behind one element on the periodic table.

Today, we’ll peer behind the curtain at vanadium.

Because of the way transition metals hide away spare electrons, some of them can perform some neat chemical tricks. Vanadium can be ionized to varying degrees, and each of those degrees is a different color. Yellow, blue, green, and purple, vanadium can be any of these colors depending on its oxidation state.4

Andres Manuel del Rio was the first person to notice these prismatic properties while studying a mineral called “brown lead” in Mexico City at the turn of the 19th century. He hypothesized an as-yet-undiscovered element was the cause of the colorful chemistry — and he was right! Del Rio was the first person to propose the existence of vanadium, though he suggested the name “panchromium.”5

He shared this information with a visiting colleague, the world-famous scientist and gadabout Alexander von Humboldt. He brought this news back to France, along with a sample of the element. But the chemists on that side of the Atlantic disagreed with Del Rio, believing that he had merely found a sample of chromium, an element that was already known at the time. Del Rio deferred to their opinion, unaware that his follow-up letter explaining vanadium’s chemistry in great detail was lost when the ship carrying it sank in a storm.6 7

German chemist Friedrich Wohler experimented upon a sample of vanadium in 1823 without realizing precisely what he had his hands on, so it wasn’t until 1831 that Element 23’s discovery was finally put on the books. Nils Sefstrom, working with Jons Jakob Berzelius, was the lucky Swede who managed to separate the element from iron ore and convince the wider world that he had done so.8

The Chemical Swedes christened the element “vanadium,” after the Norse goddess of beauty, Vanadis.9

Norse mythology is collected in a series of ancient poems and prose passages called eddasAfter naming the new element, Berzelius wrote an edda of his own and sent it to Wohler, the chemist who could have claimed the discovery earlier:

Long ago there lived in the far North the goddess Vanadis, beautiful and alluring. One day there came a knock at her door. The goddess sat quietly and thought, ‘I will let him knock once more,’ but the second knock failed to come, and the man who had knocked merely walked away. The goddess was curious to know who was so indifferent to being admitted and she sprang to the window to view the departing guest. ‘Ah-ha!’ she said to herself, ‘it’s that rogue Wohler. It serves him right; had he been a little more persistent I would have let him in. But he doesn’t even look up at the window in passing.’ A few days later there was another knock at the door. Sefstrom stepped in, and from this meeting Vanadium was born.”

Regardless of who finally got to name the substance, everyone could agree that the element had a beautiful and curious relationship with color, and that property goes beyond vibrant salts. Vanadium plays no role in human biology, but if for some reason you did consume a whole bunch of it, you might find that your tongue is now green. But you could easily be forgiven for missing that, because if you’ve ingested that much vanadium, you’re probably also covered in rashes and bleeding out of every orifice.10 11

There are animals that do find a biological use for vanadium, and they are correspondingly bizarre. You won’t find them on land. They dwell in the dark and briny deep of the ocean, a realm so far and foreign to us that the beings who live there might as well be from another planet.

If you think I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect, please allow me to elaborate.

The vanadium-seeking animals in question are called tunicates, and they have lived on Earth for over half a billion years. A newly hatched tunicate is a very simple creature, little more than a single bulbous eye with a long, sinuous tail that propels it through the water. It doesn’t get much more efficient than that for location scouting. But there are some downsides. For instance, without a mouth, the tunicate cannot eat!

That’s okay, it’s prepared for exactly this situation. With that big ol’ eye, the tunicate looks for a place to settle down. Often that’s a rock in a tidepool, or a ship’s hull, or even on the back of a particularly large crab.12

Wherever it decides to hunker down, the tunicate commits. That’s its forever home. Almost immediately upon fixing itself in place, it recycles the part of its body called the cerebral ganglion.

The tunicate eats its own brain!

And you know what? It might as well, because from that point forward, the tunicate doesn’t really have any complicated decisions to make. It simply filters microscopic food from the water as it flows over and through its body. As it sifts food in this way for years or even decades, one choice item on the menu is vanadium.13

But we don’t really know why.

It’s not some kind of accident. Their bodies can contain as much as ten million times as much vanadium as the seawater they’re immersed in.14 They might employ vanadium as part of their immune systems, or perhaps as some kind of deterrent to predators.

One very observable side effect this has for the tunicates is that their blood is a pale green color. Like Spock, from Star Trek! I told you they were practically aliens.

This anomalous abundance of Element 23 caught the attention of the American military during World War II. They considered harvesting tunicates as a source of the transition metal for the war effort. But, much like the enigmatic sea creatures, it’s hard to say exactly why the military was in search of vanadium.

Some scientists were told that it was part of a top secret project, with the obvious implication being the atomic bomb, for those in the know. Vanadium is sometimes found in the same veins as uranium, but the real explanation was probably much more mundane.

The military was attracted to vanadium for the same reason Henry Ford found it useful in the production of his automobiles: The way it made steel that was extremely lightweight and terrifically strong. That was highly useful for armor plating, especially the kind needed for airplanes.15

You might not be accustomed to thinking of armor as something that goes on airplanes, but especially during World War II, they needed armor just as much as a soldier’s helmet and a ship’s hull. Air missions were a harrowing ordeal during the Second World War, especially bomber runs. A crew would spend hours at a time flying over enemy territory, taking fire all the while. Mortality rates were astronomical. Anything that could improve a flight crew’s chance of survival would be welcome help.

But the engineers couldn’t just cover the whole plane in vanadium steel. It’s pretty lightweight, but this was a circumstance where every pound mattered. Too much armor, and the planes would guzzle fuel and lumber around the sky, if they could even take off at all. Too little armor, and they’d be easily shot down. So someone had to figure out which spots on the airplane really needed armor, and which could skate by without.

Ultimately, this was a math problem, and that meant that it fell under the jurisdiction of the Statistical Research Group.

The Statistical Research Group, or SRG, was a secret outpost headquartered in a cramped, stuffy apartment just a few stories above street level on West 118th Street in New York City. There, some of the most powerful computers in the world worked night and day to solve mathematical problems that might just turn the tides of war. The most impressive of these analytical machines was called Abraham Wald.[

See, in the early 1940s, the most capable calculators in the world didn’t have processors made of silicon, or even vacuum tubes. They were made of flesh and blood.

Abraham Wald was a Hungarian Jew who escaped from Europe when things started looking dicey and settled in New York. While he was working with the SRG, his legal status was defined as an “enemy alien,” which meant that he wasn’t technically allowed to read the classified reports that he was writing. But everyone was willing to overlook that. This was war. and there was math to do.16

Military officials provided the SRG with data that showed where their airplanes had suffered the most damage. The wings and fuselage were often riddled with twice as many bullet holes as other parts of the plane. Clearly, the officials said, we need to reinforce those areas. But just how much armor should they use?

That’s not right at all, Wald said. Don’t place the armor where the bullet holes are. Place the armor where the bullet holes aren’t.17

The problem, he explained, was that they weren’t looking at the whole picture. The military could only observe the planes that managed to limp home from a mission. If a bomber made it back to base with a fuselage full of holes, then that was where the plane didn’t require reinforcement. If a plane was hit in a particularly vulnerable spot, like the engine, then it wasn’t going to make it back to base. The solution was to put the armor where there were no bullet holes.

What had tricked the military officials, and what Wald managed to point out, was a conundrum known as Survivorship Bias. By focusing only on the airplanes that managed to return from a bombing run, they completely missed what it was that kept those other planes from returning.18

It’s the kind of error that people make every day. For instance, if an ambitious young entrepreneur only ever studies companies that have found financial success, they’ll never be aware of the most common pitfalls young businesses fall prey to. It’s not where the bullet holes are. It’s where the bullet holes aren’t.

So some carefully placed vanadium steel was quite the defensive advantage for bomber crews in World War II. But that was far from the first time it had made a mark on the battlefield. For well over a thousand years, Damascus steel was prized around the world for its superior strength and ability to hold a razor-sharp edge. Forging a blade from the material required a high degree of skill, and unique manufacturing methods resulted in a dazzling pattern of bands running along the flat of the blade.

Vanadium was the secret ingredient that lent such legendary strength to Damascus steel, but — in typical vanadium fashion — nobody understood that at the time. When the special vanadium-tinged reserves of steel ran dry, no blacksmith could understand why their time-tested techniques were producing embarrassingly average swords. It wasn’t until centuries later that anyone even realized there was a secret ingredient.

If you manage to get a hold of an authentic sample, Damascus steel would make a beautiful addition to your element collection in vanadium’s slot. Or you could accomplish pretty much the same thing by going down to your local hardware store. You can pick up a vanadium steel socket wrench pretty cheap. Granted, it probably won’t exhibit a mottled pattern of intricate folds lovingly crafted by a burly blacksmith, but for our purposes, it’ll do just fine.

If you prefer jewels over tools, there’s a vanadium sample for you, too. Some emeralds acquire their green color from flecks of element 23 distributed throughout the beryl crystal. But you’ll want to get that thing certified — chromium can accomplish the same effect.

For the discerning collector, pure vanadium can be hard to come by. It’s probably most easily acquired from industrial sources — stock to be added to alloys, and whatnot. Because for as useful as vanadium is, there just aren’t any really flashy uses for the raw stuff.

That seems pretty appropriate. Vanadium may be beautiful, but it’s also mysterious: secretly doing the heavy lifting in the ancient world’s strongest steel, or slowly accumulating in bizarre life forms for unknown purposes. Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky that Vanadis has answered the door at all.

Thanks for listening to The Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel. To learn about how tunicate behavior can get even weirder, visit episodic table dot com slash V.

Next time, we’ll take a shine to chromium.

This is T. R. Appleton, reminding you to live long and prosper.

Sources

  1. My Life And Work, Henry Ford and Samuel Crowther. McClure’s Magazine, Volume 54, March 1922.
  2. The Elements Of Power, p. 52. David S. Abraham, 2015.
  3. Managing Technological Innovation: Competitive Advantage From Change, p. 158-159. Frederick Betz, 2003.
  4. American Council On Science And Health, V Is For Vanadium: Versatile, Valuable, And Very Colorful. Josh Bloom, January 13, 2018.
  5. The Journal Of Chemical Education, The Scientific Contributions Of Don Andres Manuel del Rio. Mary Elvira Weeks, 1935.
  6. The Monthly American Journal Of Geology And Natural Science, Letter From J. Berzelius. 1831. This whole correspondence is fascinating and readable — Berzelius is actually arguing in favor of naming the element after Del Rio, who appears to write back and say “Nah, I’m good.”
  7. Bull. Hist. Chem., Volume 28, Number 1. Andres del Rio, Alexander von Humboldt, and the Twice-Discovered Element. Lyman R. Caswell, 2003.
  8. Education In Chemistry, Vanadium. John Emsley, May 1, 2012.
  9. Elementymology & Elements Multidict, Vanadium.
  10. Safe Use Of Chemicals: A Practical Guide, p. 101. T. S. S. Dikshith, 2009.
  11. Advanced Nutrition And Human Metabolism, p. 559. Sareen S. Gropper and Jack L. Smith, 2013.
  12. Encyclopedia Britannica, Sea Squirt. Last updated March 27, 2014.
  13. Encyclopedia Britannica, Sea Squirt. Last updated March 27, 2014.
  14. BioOne, The Mechanism Of Accumulation Of Vanadium By Ascidians: Some Progress Towards An Understanding Of This Unusual Phenomenon. Hitoshi Michibata, 1996.
  15. A Study Of Ballistic And Metallurgical Characteristics Of Steel Aircraft Armor, J. M. Hodge and H. V. Joyce. The Naval Research Laboratory, June 1948.
  16. Journal Of The American Statistical Association, The Statistical Research Group, 1942-1945. June, 1980.
  17. Abraham Wald And The Missing Bullet Holes, excerpted from How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg.
  18. You Are Not So Smart, Survivorship Bias. David McRaney, May 23, 2013.

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