Researchers Find Levels Of Rare Element On The Rise

Research performed by a team of scientists at Dartmouth College has shown that the global level of osmium, a rare element that can combine with oxygen to form the highly toxic compound osmium tetroxide, is on the rise.

The increasing levels of osmium are the result of an unanticipated Catch-22. Osmium occurs naturally (as an alloy in platinum ore), but the researchers were surprised to find that much of the osmium on the planet's surface was produced artificially. This is because osmium is produced when platinum is refined. Why are we refining so much platinum? Platinum is used in catalytic converters, the devices underneath cars that are intended to reduce smog.

"It's interesting, maybe ironic, that we stopped adding lead to gasoline in the [1970s] so that catalytic converters could be introduced to remove smog from car exhaust," says Associate Professor of Earth Sciences Mukul Sharma. "Now we learn that using platinum in the converters is responsible for an increase in osmium. Fortunately, unlike lead, the concentration of osmium in water is extremely small and may not adversely affect biology."

While it appears that humans are unlikely to face any real danger as a result of the increases osmium levels on the earth's surface, this example illustrates just how difficult it can be to reduce pollution. Often, measures taken to eliminate one kind of pollutants (in this case, automobile exhaust) can have unintended consequences.

  Osmium Facts

  • The symbol for osmium is Os
  • Osmium is hard, brittle and typically bluish-gray in color
  • Osmium is used in the production of fountain pens, electrical contacts and other products that require extreme durability and hardness
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