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Dr Poliakoff's wonderful world of elements...

This week I am writing about one of my metal heroes.

While the average metal merchant tends to occupy himself with contracts, warehouses, sampling/analysis rules, arbitration and shipping - it does not mean you need ignore the science of the elements in which we trade. You may not be a metallurgist, but you can still voyage amongst the elements and learn about some of their awe--inspiring properties.

The portal to this universe is

Conceived in 2008, by Dr Martyn Poliakoff, and created with the assistance of photojournalist Brady Haran, and laboratory technicians at Nottingham University, metals people of all ages may embark on fabulous journeys; from Antimony to Zirconium and from Hafnium to Holmium. You never know - it may help you in your career, especially if you are not a scientist to begin with.

Although the videos are designed for students, there is no age limit. Only curiosity is required and I am telling you about this because some form of metalophilia is surely to be encouraged if you end up in the metals industry - potentially for a lifetime.

But first let me tell you about Dr Poliakoff’s hair...To ignore it would be a mistake as it plays an important educational role for the many children and young adults worldwide who listen to Dr Poliakoff's talks. It is a curly mop with an Einsteinian propensity to explode outwards which, with the Professor’s thick rimmed glasses, and expressive hand gestures, children take very seriously.

In the 1970s, when I was at school, it was quite common for our chemistry teachers to be prematurely grey, caused by their daily proximity to mercury globules which we were encouraged to observe in unlidded Petri dishes in class.

What Dr Poliakoff has done is to re-invent The Faraday Lectures for our times, the chemistry talks given by Michael Faraday in the early 19th Century in which experiments were performed in front of live audiences who came in their hundreds to be amazed. It is particularly meaningful to me as Faraday’s house is not one hundred metres from our office in Hampton Court, a place from which we draw inspiration.

In Dr Poliakoff speaks to camera from his professorial book-lined room while elements are held in the hand and examined as salts, liquids, precipitations, gases, minerals or alloys. As he speaks, video illustrations of experiments are interspliced.

All this came into its own during the last two years when young people were unable to attend chemistry classes. There was a danger that an entire generation of chemical curiosity would be lost. These videos became a lifeline and the team at Nottingham received messages such as this from the United States:-

I’m a grandfather in the U.S. who has six elementary school grandkids form 1st to 6th grade. When Covid-19 hit, all schools closed...I observed by grandkids science education fall apart...As I looked for online resources, I came across your Periodic Table of Videos. The kids are mesmerized by your work. We have covered about 75% of the elements so far and we’ll finish the rest in the next few months. I wanted you to know the positive impact you and your team have had on these kids and their interest in science.

I was particularly bad at chemistry at school and did no science at university. And yet I spent 40 years in our metals industry surrounded by the world of chemistry, metallurgy, physics, and geology. It was a joy, but as a late starter what I appreciated throughout that time were the popular scientists – the people who could convey complicated concepts in simple language. Dr Poliakoff is one of these geniuses. If you are one of those entering the metals trade without science – have no fear. There are people such as he to help.

I was lucky, as I say, because I had great teachers. I used to travel with an engineer friend who explained why my plane, taxiing along a Russian runway in sub-zero temperatures before take-off was unlikely to skid off (it was something to do with the forward thrust of the engines being sufficient to prevent transverse movement (sliding)), or why single crystal turbine blades operating 500 °C above the melting point of the underlying alloy would not melt (it was something to do with the gas and cooling), or why titanium and aluminium do not corrode (because of the protective oxide film that forms on the surface, unlike iron which rusts).

It is perfectly true that if you go into the world of metals you can take many paths. It is a business in which some of those who trade the greatest volume of cobalt (60% of which comes from DRC) have never set foot in Africa. It is a trade in which you can focus on macro economics, logistics, profit margins and accounts. But if you do - and ignore the earth under your feet and what it is made off - I think you will be the poorer.

When the recent troubles occurred in Kazakhstan, a country I have visited many times, I did not think of the politics but the wide steppe that I crossed in a small plane, mesmerized by hours of travel in which I saw below me nothing but the ancient sea beds, now so rich in fossil fuels. There in the desert sands I could see from the sky the nomadic pathways crisscrossing the land. When I arrived at my destination, I was at the furthest place on earth from an ocean (not a sea, you understand) where the Russians had once opened a copper mine using Gulag labour. I learned how Rhenium (Element no 75) was collected from the hot gases upon smelting and how this heavy element in its heptoxide form, instead of going downwards, becomes as light as a feather and rises up the flue. A few years later I was invited back to my University to give a talk to students about life after Oxford. It was at the Department of Material Science – whose portals I had never once entered while I was there studying English.

This is all something that a career in the metals industry can do for the young person entering the trade as much as the older metal merchant desirous of late life tutoring at the feet of Dr Poliakoff. Frankly, I’d recommend it.

See below an example of a Periodic Video using a button of Yttrium, gladly supplied by Lipmann Walton & Co Ltd!


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