Elements

Episodes

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2014071220140713 (WS)

Justin Rowlatt looks at the world economy from the perspective of the elements of the p...

Justin Rowlatt looks at the world economy from the perspective of the elements of the periodic table.

2014071920140720 (WS)

Justin Rowlatt looks at the world economy from the perspective of the elements of the p...

Justin Rowlatt looks at the world economy from the perspective of the elements of the periodic table.

08/02/20142014020920140212 (WS)

We examine how the basic building blocks of the universe - such as carbon, tin and lithiu...

We examine how the basic building blocks of the universe - such as carbon, tin and lithium - fit in to our economy.

15/02/201420140216

We examine how the basic building blocks of the universe - elements such as carbon, tin and helium - fit in to our economy.

Boron2015112120151123 (WS)

The mineral from the Wild West that toughens glass and stops bullets in their tracks.

Boron2015112120151122 (WS)

The mineral from the Wild West that toughens glass and stops bullets in their tracks.

Boron20151121

Boron is the mineral from the Wild West that stops glass from shattering and stops bullets in their tracks. Presenter Laurence Knight visits the Dixon Glass works to see why borosilicate glass is perfect for making chemistry equipment and much of the glassware we use in our day-to-day lives. Professor Andrea Sella demonstrates how this element puts the flub into flubber. Colin Roberson, founder of body armour firm Advanced Defence Materials, explains why being shot is like standing at the bottom of a volcano. And the BBC's Kim Gittleson travels to the deserts of California where the modern-day story of boron first began.

Boron20151121

Carbon20140223

Carbon-based energy sources underpin the world economy. Presenter Justin Rowlatt visits London's Science Museum to hear how coal, oil and gas sparked the industrial revolution and have led to the unprecedented standards of living we enjoy today.

Yet, as everyone knows, our fossil fuels will not last forever. And most scientists accept that our carbon dioxide emissions risk causing havoc to the world's climate and its oceans.

But here's something you may not know. Could a new carbon revolution - this time based on carbon materials - help wean mankind off its dangerous addiction to hydrocarbons? Justin visits two cutting-edge research centres - the National Composites Centre, and Manchester Graphene - to find out whether solutions to the planet's carbon crunch may be at hand.

Cobalt2015111420151116 (WS)

The metal in magnets and phone batteries - but is some of it being mined by children?

Cobalt20151114

Cobalt is a pricey metal used to make magnets, phone batteries and of course the colour blue. But what exactly are magnets, how do they work and where are they used? And is some of the cobalt in them 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. He travels to Arnold Magnetics near Sheffield where manager Martin Satyr explains how magnets are used in everything from recycling the heat from sports car engines to recycling your trash.

Also, 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.

Cobalt20151114

Copper20160326

Copper has long been the metal of electricity generators and wiring. But presenter Justin Rowlatt asks whether new technologies herald the death of the old-fashioned electricity grid. Prof Andrea Sella of University College London explains the special properties of element 29 of the periodic table that mean that half of the world's mined copper is used to conduct electricity. Justin travels to the rapidly growing Indian city of Gurgaon to ask Jasmeet Khurana of solar consultancy Bridge to India what his government's plans to increase solar power a hundredfold mean for the best way to build the country's electricity grid. Electricity entrepreneur Simon Daniel of Moixa Technology argues that solar power and battery technology could transform the century-old debate between Tesla and Edison over AC vs DC power. And Zolaikha Strong of the Copper Development Association says the transition to renewable energy means the world will still need plenty more of the metal.

Copper20160326

Gallium and Indium20160305

LED lighting, solar power and lasers are just some of the electronics revolutionised by two obscure chemical elements - gallium and indium. Presenter Laurence Knight hears from Mike Simpson of Philips why we will only need to replace our lightbulbs once every two decades. He also travels to Sheffield University where research centre head Jon Heffernan explains what on earth III-V materials are and why making an LED is like baking a pizza. Meanwhile chemistry stalwart Prof Andrea Sella of UCL demonstrates these two metals' surprisingly buttery melt-in-the-mouth properties.

Gallium and Indium2016030520160307 (WS)

LED lighting and the other electronics revolutionised by the elements Gallium and Indium

Gallium and Indium2016030520160306 (WS)

LED lighting and the other electronics revolutionised by the elements Gallium and Indium

Gallium and Indium20160305

Iron20151107

Iron is the chemical element at the heart of steel, and by extension of industrialisation. Justin Rowlatt explores key moments in the Industrial Revolution here in Britain that transformed this most abundant of metal elements into the key material out of which modern life is constructed.

But what will happen when the whole world has finished industrialising? Will we even need to dig iron out of the ground any more? And what does the recent collapse in iron ore prices say about the economic progress of China and India? Justin speaks to material scientist Daniel Beat Mueller, and to the head of iron ore operations at mining giant Rio Tinto, to find out.

Iron2015110720151109 (WS)

How the abundant metal lron became the very stuff of modern industrial life

Iron2015110720151108 (WS)

How the abundant metal lron became the very stuff of modern industrial life

Iron20151107

Lithium2014070520140706 (WS)

batteries may be the future for cars, but does Bolivia hold the keys?

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 Prof 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 Prof Nigel Brandon of Imperial College, an expert on cutting-edge battery research, about whether this week's element 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.

Magnesium and Beryllium2016031920160321 (WS)

Two metals with sinister reputations - one for flammability, the other for lung disease

Magnesium and Beryllium2016031920160320 (WS)

Two metals with sinister reputations - one for flammability, the other for lung disease

Magnesium and Beryllium20160319

Two chemical elements with sinister pasts - one helped fuel the worst conflagration in motorsports history, the other destroyed the lungs of unsuspecting nuclear workers. They are also two of the lightest metals in the periodic table - making them ideal for car and aeroplane parts. But are they safe to use?

Presenter Laurence Knight travels to alloys maker Magnesium Elektron to discover whether the metal deserves its fiery reputation, and the work they are doing to reintroduce it into aeroplane seating.

We also hear from the Hanford former nuclear weapons site in Washington State, where the BBC's Gianna Palmer investigates what is being done for ex-employees who were poisoned by beryllium dust. And, IBC Advanced Alloys explain how they protect the health of their workers manufacturing beryllium-aluminium parts for aerospace.

Magnesium and Beryllium20160319

Oxygen20151031

The 'element of life' also makes the air that we breathe a perilous and costly atmosphere in which to operate. Prof Andrea Sella of University College London provides presenter Justin Rowlatt with a characteristically striking argument for why oxygen is so “incredibly dangerous� - and how its advent turned Planet Earth into a snowball. Pawanexh Kohli, in charge of India’s national cold chain strategy, explains over a cup of chai why the oxygen needs of fresh vegetables and fresh meat are very different. Physics polymath Baldev Raj unpicks the mystery of Delhi’s 1,600-year-old iron pillar, and explains just how damaging rust and corrosion can be. And former “smoke-jumper� Frankie Romero explains the mesmerising attraction of wildfires, and why stamping them out is not always a good idea.

Oxygen2015103120151102 (WS)

The 'element of life' also makes our atmosphere very dangerous and costly to operate in

Oxygen2015103120151101 (WS)

The 'element of life' also makes our atmosphere very dangerous and costly to operate in

Oxygen20151031

Tin20140302

Tin may seem old-fashioned, but it plays some surprisingly important roles in the modern economy. Presenter Justin Rowlatt meets our favourite chemist Andrea Sella of UCL at Pewters' Hall in London to discover the unique properties of the metal that sparked the Bronze Age.

He discovers the metal's role in plastics and electronics, and visits the giant Pilkington glass factory to find out how tin revolutionised the glass-making industry. And he meets two very venerable tin chemists, Alwyn Davies and Ted Fletcher.

Titanium2016031220160314 (WS)

It's stronger than steel, but could this glamorous metal become as common as steel?

Titanium2016031220160313 (WS)

It's stronger than steel, but could this glamorous metal become as common as steel?

Titanium20160312

It's stronger than steel, but could a new chemical process one day make this glamorous metal as common as steel? Plus what do paint, sun cream, clean windows and fresh air have in common?

Prof Andrea Sella tells presenter Laurence Knight why this relatively widespread chemical element is so difficult to extract from its ore. We then head to Yorkshire, where metallurgy pioneers Metalysis are trying to commercialise a novel way of doing just that - the so-called FFC Process. Laurence also visits Epsom hospital, where surgeon Philip Mitchell explains why titanium makes such great bone implants, and Philip Dewhurst of mineral consultancy Roskill casts doubts on whether titanium will ever become cheap and ubiquitous. Plus, Brian Pickett of pigments manufacturer Cristal explains why his company has been painting various bits of London to further the fight against city smog.

Titanium20160312

Tungsten2014072620140727 (WS)

Hot, hard and heavy - it cuts steel and penetrates armour, yet China has a near monopoly

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.

01Elements2014101120141012 (WS)

Does the world face a looming glut of this devilish yellow element?

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.

Justin Rowlatt looks at the world economy from the perspective of the elements of the p...

Justin Rowlatt looks at the world economy from the perspective of the elements of the periodic table.

02Elements2014101820141019 (WS)

Justin Rowlatt looks at the world economy from the perspective of the elements of the p...

04 LASTElements2014103020141102 (WS)

Lead is the sweetest of poisons, so have we learnt how to handle this heavy metal?

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.