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A close look at chemical elements, the basic building blocks of the universe. Where do we get them, what do we use them for and how do they fit into our economy?

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Helium (He)

The second most abundant element in the universe, helium is rare on Earth. In liquid form it is used as a coolant in super conducting magnets in MRI scanners – so should this rare element be used in something as frivolous as party balloons? And what happens to the helium when that balloon inevitably escapes the clutch of a small child?(Picture: US National Helium Reserve; Credit: Jonny Dymond/BBC)


12 Jul 2014

Rank #1

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Aluminium (Al)

Light, strong and flexible, aluminium is used in drinks cans, window frames, aircraft and packaging. Ubiqitous today, why was it valued more highly than gold 150 years ago? Is it better to recycle this metal, or spend vast amounts of energy creating more of it from scratch? And why is Jaguar Landrover teaching robots to rivet?


13 Jul 2014

Rank #2

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Magnesium (Mg)

This metal played a part in the worst car crash in history, the 1955 Le Mans disaster, helping to make the resulting inferno explosively dangerous. Yet despite its fiery reputation, and its proneness to corrosion, magnesium has regained its historic role in making planes and cars lighter and more efficient. Presenter Laurence Knight visits Magnesium Elektron, the company behind the alloy used in the ill-fated Le Mans car, to find out how a new breed of alloys has exorcised the demon's in this metal's past. We also hear from researcher Kristin Persson about an entirely new role magnesium could play in the car industry - as an even lighter and more compact replacement for lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles.(Picture: Magnesium alloy flame test; Credit: Magnesium Elektron)


30 Sep 2015

Rank #3

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Mercury (Hg)

Mercury is beautiful, yet deadly poisonous. Known as quicksilver, the Minamata international treaty aims to phase its use out completely. But how will the ban on element 80 affect artisanal gold miners? Or coal-fired power stations? And why does so much of this liquid metal end up in tuna and swordfish?(Picture: Ghanaian artisanal miner holds mercury in his hand; Credit: Matt Davies/BBC)


14 Jul 2014

Rank #4

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Lead (Pb)

Lead is the sweetest of poisons, blamed for everything from mad Roman emperors to modern-day crime waves. Yet a lead-acid battery is still what gets your car going in the morning. So have we finally learnt how to handle this heavyweight element? Justin Rowlatt travels to arts shop Cornelissen in London's Bloomsbury to find out why they have stopped stocking lead paints, and hears from professor Andrea Sella of University College London about the unique properties that have made this metal so handy in everything from radiation protection to glassware. Yet lead in petrol is also accused of having inflicted brain damage on an entire generation of children in the 1970s, as the economist Jessica Wolpaw-Reyes of Amherst College explains. And, producer Laurence Knight travels to one of the UK's only two lead smelters - HJ Enthoven's at Darley Dale in Derbyshire, the historical heartland of the UK lead industry - to see what becomes of the lead in your car battery. And, we speak to the director of the International Lead Association, Andy Bush.


1 Oct 2014

Rank #5

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Uranium (U)

Uranium is the fuel for nuclear power stations, which generate carbon-free electricity, but also radioactive waste that lasts a millennium. In the latest in our series looking at the world economy from the perspective of the elements of the periodic table, Justin Rowlatt travels to Sizewell in Suffolk, in a taxi driven by a former uranium prospector.He is given a tour of the operational power station, Sizewell B, which generates 3% of the UK's electricity, by EDF's head of safety Colin Tucker, before popping next-door to the original power station, Sizewell A, where he speaks to site director Tim Watkins about the drawn-out process of decommissioning and cleaning up the now-defunct reactors.But while Sizewell remains reassuringly quiet, big explosions come at the end of the programme. We pit environmentalist and pro-nuclear convert Mark Lynas against German Green politician Hans-Josef Fell, the joint architect of Germany's big move towards wind and solar energy, at the expense of nuclear. Is nuclear a green option? It really depends whom you ask.(Photo: Perdiodic table)


8 Oct 2014

Rank #6

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Cobalt (Co)

Cobalt, the metal in magnets and phone batteries, is synonymous with the colour blue. But what exactly are magnets, how do they work and where are they used? And is some of the cobalt being mined by children? Presenter Laurence Knight hears from chemistry professor Andrea Sella of University College London why a permanent magnet is like a flock of birds, and he travels to Arnold Magnetics near Sheffield where manager Martin Satyr explains how magnets are used in everything from recovering the heat energy from sportscar engines to recycling your trash. Also in the programme, Mark Dummett of Amnesty International, back from Katanga in southern Congo - source of half the world's cobalt - tells of his concerns about the conditions in which artisanal miners work, including children. And David Weight of the Cobalt Development Institute explains what the industry is doing to ensure it knows where its cobalt is coming from. (Photo: Andrea Sella picking up lumps of cobalt with a magnet; Credit: Laurence Knight)


22 Jul 2015

Rank #7

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Potassium (K)

Potash plumps up fruit, vegetables and grains, and the potassium it contains is an essential nutrient. Yet India is completely dependent on imports of this critical fertiliser to feed its population.Presenter Justin Rowlatt visits a farm on the Ganges plains to see how this mineral is used, and speaks to the head of the national importer Indian Potash Ltd about their efforts to promote its use by farmers.We also hear from Paul Burnside, analyst at CRU Group, how a bust-up in Belarus has helped turn potash into a global buyers' market.Meanwhile Prof Andrea Sella of University College London recreates everyone's favourite school chemistry experiment, with some unexpected consequences...(Picture: Indian labourer carries bananas in Chennai; Credit: Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images)


18 May 2016

Rank #8

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Vanadium (V)

Traditionally used as a magic ingredient to produce tougher, more wear-resistant steels, vanadium has discovered a surprising new calling in life. Could this neglected metal, and the gigantic batteries it produces, provide the perfect counterpart for temperamental wind and solar energy sources? And could a future source of the mineral be harvested from the bottom of the sea?(Picture: Chrome vanadium adjustable spanners and bolts; Credit: runrobirun/Thinkstock)


28 Jul 2014

Rank #9

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Tungsten (W)

Tungsten is one of the hardest, heaviest and highest melting metals, used in everything from bulbs to bullets, x-rays to drill bits. Justin Rowlatt hears from the perennial Professor Andrea Sella of University College London about the properties of what is one of the densest of elements. We get a tour of the SGS Carbide tool factory with managing director Alan Pearce, and we consider the market value of this very useful element with Mark Seddon, head of consultancy firm Tungsten Market Research.Should we worry that China dominates demand? And why is it taking so long to open up new sources? We visit the Hemerdon mining project in the pretty English county of Devon, and hear from Russell Clark, head of the mining firm Wolf Minerals that is reopening it.And, there is a very special reason why your government should care about its tungsten supplies, as military technology analyst Robert Kelley explains.(Picture: Soldier lays armour-piercing sabot round on the ground during Operation Desert Shield; Credit: US Department of Defense)


29 Jul 2014

Rank #10

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Beryllium (Be)

Rare and toxic, beryllium can do serious damage to your lungs. Presenter Laurence Knight explores whether and how we can make use of this metal safely. Prof Andrea Sella of University College London explains why beryllium's surprising scarcity is the very reason it can be so harmful to the body. Gianna Palmer reports from the Hanford nuclear site in Washington State on this chemical element's intimate and poisonous history in the US nuclear weapons programme. And we hear from IBC Advanced Alloys, a company that claims to have a novel, cheap - and safe - way of producing aeroplane parts out of beryllium-aluminium.Image: A man holding a shockproof X-ray tube - Beryllium is used in the construction of these. Credit: Douglas Miller/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images


22 Oct 2015

Rank #11

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Plutonium (Pu)

Plutonium is one of a family of highly radioactive "synthetic" elements cooked up in nuclear reactors. But does it and its kin have any practical application besides the atom bomb? We travel to plutonium's sunny birthplace to find out.(Picture: Nuclear test in Nevada in 1953; Credit: Stocktrek Images/Thinkstock)


11 Sep 2014

Rank #12

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Hydrogen (H) - fusion

Could we finally be about to crack this source of potentially unlimited clean energy - thanks in part to a plethora of private sector tech startups? Laurence Knight travels to one such company, Tokamak Energy in the UK, to hear from plasma physicist Melanie Windridge. Meanwhile the BBC's David Willis reports on the string of secretive new fusion initiatives along the Pacific Coast, and the Silicon Valley money backing them.Plus, could fusion energy open the way to the economic abundance and space travel portrayed in Star Trek? Laurence speaks to Trekonomics author Manu Saadia. (Picture: Plasma inside a Tokamak fusion reactor; Credit: Tokamak Energy)


31 May 2016

Rank #13

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Carbon (C) - energy

Carbon is a great energy store – in plants and animals, but also as hydrocarbons – coal, oil and natural gas. From the Industrial Revolution onwards, burning these fossil fuels has released vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the air, affecting our climate and oceans. So can we ever get by without carbon-based energy?


16 Jul 2014

Rank #14

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Rare Earth Elements (Ce, Nd, Dy, Er, etc)

Neither rare nor earths, these 17 elements are nonetheless difficult and unpleasant to mine and refine. Chemically near-identical, these metals have unique magnetic and optical properties, making them essential in modern technology from fibre optics to wind turbines. So should we worry about China's stranglehold over their supply?(Picture: 20 euro note glows under an ultraviolet light; Credit: Frans Dekkers/Thinkstock)


21 Jul 2014

Rank #15

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Nitrogen (N) - explosives

Some 78% of the Earth's atmosphere is nitrogen. Yet this seemingly inert gas is the key component of bombs and explosives. It has brought life and death on an epic scale since mankind first unlocked its potential a century ago. And it has brought tragedy to the lives of the scientists who mastered its potential.(Picture: Early Bosch ammonia reactor in Ludwigshafen; Credit: BASF)


26 Jul 2014

Rank #16

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Lithium (Li)

Lithium is the electro-chemical element - big in batteries and bipolar disorder. Over two decades it has shot from obscurity to become almost synonymous with the way we power our gadgets. Presenter Justin Rowlatt hears from chemistry powerhouse professor Andrea Sella of University College London about what makes lithium so light and energetic. We hear from Gideon Long in Chile, who visits the world's richest source of lithium in the Atacama Desert, and about how neighbouring Bolivia believes it will dominate supply if demand for this alkali metal continues to see double-digit growth. Justin speaks to professor Nigel Brandon of Imperial College, an expert on cutting-edge battery research, about whether lithium can ever realistically hope to challenge a can of petrol as the best way to power a car. And, we hear from clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison of Johns Hopkins University about the literally life-saving role lithium has played for sufferers of bipolar disorder - including herself. (Picture: Salar de Atacama; Credit: Gideon Long)


22 Jul 2014

Rank #17

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Caesium (Cs)

The atomic clock runs on caesium, and has redefined the very meaning of time. But it has also introduced a bug into timekeeping that affects everything from computerised financial markets to electricity grids, and satellite navigation to the Greenwich Meridian. Justin Rowlatt travels to the birthplace of modern time, the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, England, to speak to Krzysztof Szymaniec, the keeper of the 'Caesium Fountain', and Leon Lobo, the man charged with disseminating time to the UK. He also hears from Felicitas Arias, director of time at the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures in Paris, about plans to abolish the 'leap second'. And, the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, explains why even the atomic clock can never hope to provide an absolute measure of time.


24 Sep 2014

Rank #18

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Sulphur (S)

Sulphur is in abundant supply thanks to its extraction from sour oil and gas, in order to prevent acid rain pollution. But does the world face a glut of this devilish chemical element, famed for its colour and odour? And if so, what uses can it be put to?Justin Rowlatt has his hair cut as professor Andrea Sella of University College London, demonstrates sulphur's surprisingly plastic - and acrid - qualities. He travels to the leafy London suburb of Twickenham to find out about Joshua Ward, the charlatan who set up the world's first sulphuric acid factory.We hear from Richard Hands, editor of Sulphur magazine, about the element's many industrial uses, as well as the gigantic heaps of unwanted sulphur piling up in Canada and Florida. And Mike Lumley, who leads efforts at Shell to make use of the oil giant's sulphur bi-product, explains why the end of acid rain has opened up a surprising new source of demand.Finally, Justin speaks to Dr Robert Ballard - the man who located the shipwreck of the Titanic - about why he actually considers a sulphur-linked oceanic discovery to be his greatest achievement.(Picture: Sulphur blocks in Alberta, Canada; Credit: David Dodge/Pembina Institute)


30 Jul 2014

Rank #19

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Germanium (Ge)

Nanotech, virtual reality, Moore's Law - we look at germanium, the substance that could oust the silicon from Silicon Valley, and one day help computers supercede your brain.IBM's head of innovation, Bernie Meyerson, showcases the company's new prototype 7nm germanium-silicon chip - containing the tiniest transistors yet at just 35 atoms across. Presenter Laurence Knight heads to Oxford to scrutinise the equally tiny images made by startup Bodle Technologies out of wonder material GST. And he hears from another IBM material scientist - Abu Sebastian, based in Zurich - about how GST could help us build thinking computers that might one day outsmart us all.(Picture: IBM's prototype 7nm silicon-germanium chip; Credit: Darryl Bautista/Feature Photo Service for IBM)


16 Mar 2016

Rank #20