19 Scientists Reveal Their Favourite Element

To celebrate National Chemistry Week, which runs from Oct. 20-26, we asked a bunch of scientists, with help from the
American Chemical Society, what their favourite periodic element is, and why.

A chemical element is a material that cannot be broken down or changed into a simpler substance (without the help of an atom-smasher, that is). Elements are the building blocks of all matter — everything we feel, smell, and see — and combine to make all molecules.

The modern periodic table arranges all known chemical elements in order of their atomic number, which refers to the number of protons in that element. The number of protons in an atom affect how many electrons they attract which determines the chemical behaviour of the element.

So what’s the fairest element of them all? See what the experts had to say.

Dr. Donna Nelson -- Carbon

Credentials: Dr. Donna Nelson is a chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma. She has also served as a science advisor to the television show 'Breaking Bad.'

Why is this your favourite element?: 'My favourite element is carbon, and not merely because carbon makes up diamonds and diamonds are a girl's best friend!

First, carbon is central to my research and teaching. My research group developed an analysis of groups (of atoms) attached to single-walled carbon nanotubes, which reveals how each group interacts with the tube. These carbon nanotubes are extremely strong and will benefit our society by being mixed with and thereby strengthening materials such as polymers.

Second, I teach organic chemistry, which is the chemistry of carbon. I am determined to make it truly easier for students, which I am slowly accomplishing.

Third, I helped with Walter White's high school teaching scene about the importance of Carbon, which started out 'Alkenes, diolefins, polyenes, the nomenclature alone is enough to make your head spin.''

Atomic symbol: C

Atomic number: 6

Dr. Preston MacDougall -- Phosphorus

Dr. Preston MacDougall

Credentials: Dr. Preston MacDougall is a professor and assistant chair in the department of chemistry at Middle Tennessee State University. Known as the 'Chemical Eye Guy,' MacDougall has frequently served as a science commentator on WMOT, a National Public Radio station serving the Nashville region.

Why is this your favourite element?: 'My favourite element is phosphorus, not just because it is essential to life, and is a key cog in the backbone of DNA, but especially because of the fascinating story of its 17th century discovery by Hennig Brand never fails to get my students attention. It also helps them remember that, unlike fluorine, phosphorus begins with the letter P.'

Atomic symbol: P

Atomic number: 15

Dr. JaimeLee Iolani Rizzo -- Nitrogen

Credentials: Dr. JaimeLee Iolani Rizzo is the assistant chair in the department of chemistry and physical science at Pace University.

Why is this your favourite element?: 'We have synthesized compounds based on N heterocycles that bear antimicrobial activity for which we have a number of patents and publications.'

For the non-chemists, that means she uses nitrogen-based compounds to fight bacteria.

Atomic symbol: N

Atomic number: 7

Steve Maguire -- Boron

Credentials: Steve Maguire is the 2013 video winner of the Flame Challenge, sponsored by the Alan Alda Center For Communicating Science, and also the creator and host of 'Science Isn't Scary,' a webseries dedicated to explaining everyday science to a general audience.

Why is this your favourite element?: 'I would have said Unununium (Element 111) because the name is funny, but it's recently been renamed Copernicium, after Nicholas Copernicus. Instead, I will go with boron: it's used in borax soap (anyone remember 20 Mule Team brand?) as well as Pyrex cookware. It's also found in a compound called ammoniaborane, which shows great promise for storing hydrogen as a fuel of the future.'

Atomic symbol: B

Atomic number: 5

Laura Pence -- Platinum

Credentials: Laura Pence is an award-winning chemistry professor at the University of Hartford and recently spent a year in the U.S. Senate as a Congressional Science Policy Fellow.

Why is this your favourite element?: 'I'd have to vote for platinum as a favourite element because it looks gorgeous in jewelry and because it contributes to cleaner air. Just small amounts of platinum in the catalytic converters in cars can reduce emission of pollutants that contribute to making smog.'

Atomic symbol: Pt

Atomic number: 78

Keith Butler -- Nitrogen

Credentials: Keith Butler is the chief chemist for American Ordnance at the Milan Army Ammunition Plant in Milan, Tennessee. He has over 25 years experience testing components used in ammunition items for the U.S. Army.
He is also an adjunct chemistry professor at Jackson State Community College.

Why is this your favourite element?: 'Air is 78% Nitrogen. In pure oxygen, every spark could become a raging inferno! Nitrogen normally exists as a pair of atoms strongly bound to each other. This strong bond leads to the reason nitrogen is my favourite. I work with military explosives which contain a lot of nitrogen. When detonated, explosives like TNT transform into carbon dioxide, water, and nitrogen. The strength of the nitrogen/nitrogen bond is related to how much energy the TNT releases. Nitrogen is also found in fertilizers, Kevlar vests, Super Glue, caffeine, DNA, proteins, antibiotics, and Viagra! Nitrogen keeps us safe and makes life better.'

Atomic symbol: N

Atomic number: 7

Doris Lewis -- Titanium

Credentials: Doris Lewis is a chemistry professor at Suffolk University. She is also a councilor at the American Chemical Society.

Why is this your favourite element?: 'It's stronger than steel but much lighter, titanium in my knee replacement is super. It's glamorous in the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and it's a great pop song by David Guetta. Titanium oxide is the sunscreen in my favourite moisturizer and it gives a nice smooth look -- not surprising because it is used in house paint, the more the better!'

Atomic symbol: Ti

Atomic number: 22

Ken Poggenburg -- Carbon

Credentials: Ken Poggenburg is a councilor at the American Chemical Society. He has a Ph.D in nuclear chemistry from University of California, Berkeley and spent 13 years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory before moving into commercial radiopharmaceutical development.

Why is this your favourite element? 'My favourite element is carbon. In its pure elemental state it can take a variety of forms, from unstructured charcoal powder used for purification filters, to graphite used for pencils and lubrication, amazing single-atom thick graphene sheets and spherical bucky-balls, and the beautiful translucent diamond crystal. And that's before we look at all the thousands of compounds it forms with other elements, making up all the organic molecules that make life possible on Earth.'

Atomic symbol: C

Atomic number: 6

Sally Mitchell -- Hassium

Credentials: Sally Mitchell is a high school chemistry teacher at East Syracuse Minoa High School in East Syracuse, NY. She is an advisor to her high school's ChemClub, and part of a panel of experts who address STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) topics in the area of education.

Why is this your favourite element?: 'Albert Einstein once said 'The process of scientific discovery is, in effect, a continual flight from wonder.' The element Hassium has no apparent use to the world, yet. But it is that last word that keeps science the exciting field we know today, inspiring young children to become scientists to make the discoveries. When we invest time and money synthesizing a few atoms of Hassium that disappear quickly, we are laying the groundwork for uncovering potential.'

Atomic symbol: Hs

Atomic number: 108

Dr. George L. Heard -- Aluminium

Credentials: George Heard is an associate professor of chemistry at the University of North Carolina Asheville and is currently the chair of the American Chemical Society's Committee on Community Activities.

Why is this your favourite element?: 'Did you know that aluminium is the third most abundant metal in the cosmos (just behind iron and magnesium)? It is the only element that has two officially-recognised spellings and pronunciations -- in Australia it is written 'aluminium' and pronounced al-you-minnie-um. It should be a very reactive metal -- and if you can get it alone, it is -- but it forms a protective and flexible layer with water and oxygen, so we can use it in wires, thin foil, and drink cans without worrying about it getting rusty. Aluminium as a part of zeolites in water filters helps keep your drinking water clean. Learn to love aluminium -- and make sure you recycle it!'

Atomic symbol: Al

Atomic number: 13

Dr. Amina El-Ashmawy -- Rhodium

Credentials: Dr. El-Ashmawy has been a chemistry professor at Collin College since 1991. She received her Ph.D. from the University of North Texas in Chemistry Education.

Why is this your favourite element?: 'It is the 45th element and is used in catalytic converters, electrical applications, and jewelry. It is classified as a noble metal, which means it doesn't react much with anything, and it occurs only rarely in nature. Being fairly expensive, rhodium is used to plate jewelry since it does not tarnish or oxidize easily, is harder than platinum and has a silvery shine. I spent three years studying rhodium's catalytic properties, which lead to my deeper understanding and true appreciation of this element.'

Atomic symbol: Rh

Atomic number: 45

Dr. Jack Driscoll -- Arsenic

Credentials: Dr. Jack Driscoll is the Manager of Marketing & Technology at PID Analyzers, LLC.

Why is this your favourite element?: One of (Arsenic's) main uses is as an n-type dopant in semiconductor devices which are used in iPhones, iPads, and computers. Arsenic is very poisonous to life even at low levels. It is the 20th most common element in the Earth's crust and can be found naturally in the drinking water of a number of countries. PID Analyzers, LLC has recently developed an analyzer for Arsenic that can detect 100 parts per trillion (PPT) or 1% of the EPA standard for Arsenic in drinking water. It can also detect PPT levels of Arsenic in food and juices.'

Atomic symbol: As

Atomic number: 33

Marilyn D. Duerst -- Silicon

Credentials: Marilyn D. Duerst is a distinguished lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She has taught chemistry for non-science majors, elementary education majors, and science majors for over 30 years.

Why is this your favourite element?: 'Silicon fascinates me; it is a grey, shiny 'semi-metal,' neither a true metal nor a true non-metal. Sand is mainly silicon dioxide; building sand castles at the beach with my grandkids is a favourite pastime in the summer. Sand is the main ingredient in glass. What would our homes and vehicles be without glass for windows? Quartz, a hard mineral with a beautiful crystal structure, is also silicon dioxide. In the last half-century, silicon has become the critical element in electronic devices and computer parts. How different our lives would be without silicon!'

Atomic number: Ag

Atomic symbol: 47

Dr. William R. Oliver -- Americium-241

Credentials: William Oliver is a professor emeritus of chemistry at Northern Kentucky University. He is a Fellow at the American Chemical Society.

Why is this your favourite element?: Americium-241 is 'a synthetic element that has saved countless lives. It is a radioactive element that is found in all battery-powered smoke detectors. The radioactivity that it emits into an ionization chamber allows a small electric current to pass between two electrodes. That radioactive emission is disrupted by a very tiny wisp of smoke. When that happens, the current is interrupted and the battery causes a loud alarm to sound, alerting people to the earliest stages of a fire.'

Atomic symbol: 241Am (This is an isotope of americium, which means it has the same number of protons and electrons as that element, but a different number of neutrons)

Atomic number: 95

Amanda Morris -- Iron

Credentials: Amanda Morris is an assistant professor of inorganic and energy chemistry at Virginia Tech University. She currently serves as an expert in sustainable energy for the American Chemical Society.

Why is this your favourite element?: 'When choosing a favourite element, I immediately think of iron. It is the daily essential element! As the central element in hemoglobin, it is responsible to carrying precious oxygen cargo from our lungs to our body. In the form of steel, it moves us through the world as the frames to our ships, aeroplanes, cars, and bikes. Our food industry relies on iron to make ammonia by the Haber-Bosch process for use in fertiliser. As you can see, iron is central to life on planet Earth (literally -- it makes up the Earth's core!)'

Atomic symbol: Fe

Atomic number: 26

Scott Lockledge -- Chromium

Credentials: Scott P. Lockledge, Ph.D. is the CEO and co-founder of two nanotechnology startup companies: Venture-backed Lutek, LLC, and Tiptek, LLC. He also serves on the advisory board of Chemical and Engineering News, the weekly news magazine of the American Chemical Society.

Why is this your favourite element?: 'I like chromium -- the way it gleams. If you coat another piece of metal with it, you can create a bumper or a mirror that shines. And, it stays that way for a long time. If you mix it with other metals you can make stainless steel that won't rust. Or, you can make make sharp, hard, and glossy knives. Chromium gives rubies their red colour, too. Yes, I like chromium.'

Atomic symbol: Cr

Atomic number: 24

Catherine Hunt -- Oxygen

Credentials: Catherine Hunt is the former R&D Director of Innovation Sourcing & Sustainable Technologies at The Dow Chemical Company, and was the 2007 President of the American Chemical Society. She holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of California, Davis.

Why is this your favourite element? (Catherine has submitted a poem to explain):
Ode to O2
by Catherine T. 'Katie' Hunt
Oxygen,
because of you, I can survive;
because of you, I am alive!
With every yoga breath I take,
With every scuba dive I make,
With every tire I inflate,
I think that you, O2, are GREAT!!

With every glass of H2O I drink,
It's of you and Hydrogen that I think!
Kudos to you for forming WATER!
We could not live without this daughter!
Thank you, O2, for being YOU!

Atomic symbol: O

Atomic number: 8

Mark Benvenuto -- Aluminium

Credentials: Mark Benvenuto has been a chemistry professor at the University of Detroit Mercy for 20 years, where he teaches general, inorganic, and industry chemistry courses. He earned his Ph.D at the University of Virginia, which he attended after four years as a lieutenant in the Army.

Why is this your favourite element?: 'When it's a fine powder, it can be mixed with rust (aka: iron (III) oxide), ignited, and there's no way to put the mix out until it burns out. This is the thermite reaction, and while teachers and professors use it as a dramatic combustion to show how a material burns, the railroad industry uses it to weld rail ends to each other to make it safe for train travel, and the military uses it in the event that they have to destroy their own armoured vehicles, so the bad guys can't capture and turn those vehicles on our own troops. Here's to aluminium!'

Atomic symbol: Al

Atomic number: 13

Sanda Sun -- Carbon

Credentials: Sanda Sun teaches organic chemistry at Irvine Valley College in Irvine, California.

Why is this your favourite element?: 'As an Organic Chemistry instructor, I write 'C' countless times over the years. It has become the initial point of my thinking process. Carbon is everywhere in us as living beings and around us in the universe. It is a nonmetal being able to bond with itself and other elements, creating an abundant amount of carbon compounds such as graphite, diamond, fuels, carbon dioxide, alcohols, fatty acids, and esters. It certainly is an essential element of our existence.'

Atomic symbol: C

Atomic number: 6

Bonus: All the elements in one song.

Mathematician and former Harvard lecturer Tom Lehrer recites the names of all the chemical elements known at the time in a song called 'The Elements.'

Continue celebrating National Chemistry Week.

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