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Bismuth

A young Japanese chemist uses his spare time to take gorgeous macro photographs of minerals.

Most of us don't really get to spend much time studying the elements up close and personal. We have a bit of a play with Theodore Gray's stunning iPad app (and drool over his Periodic Table Table), but that's about as close as it gets.

That is, until we found the work of chemist and photographer Ryoji Tanaka. Tanaka, who works in the Inorganic Materials Group at the Sagami Chemical Research Institute, Ayase, Japan, has plenty of opportunities to study the building blocks of our planet — and take stunning macro photographs of them to share with the world.

Using a variety of cameras, Tanaka engages in photomacrography, macrophotography and photomicroscopy to showcase the secret lives of elements and minerals that we might never have otherwise seen.

Bismuth appears to have a rainbow sheen, thanks to surface oxidisation, and displays a peculiar, labyrinthine, stepped crystal shape. This is because the outside edge of the bismuth crystal grows faster than the middle, creating a strange, squared spiral.

Photo by: Bismuth image © 2012 Ryoji Tanaka. Used with permission of Ryoji Tanaka. All rights reserved.

Silicon

Silicon is not a metal, but rather what is called a metalloid; that is, a material that displays properties of both metallic and non-metallic substances. Silicon — which makes up 25.7 per cent of the Earth's crust by weight — is conductive like metal, but, like water, expands when it freezes. It can be found in sand, quartz, opal, amethyst, agate and other semiprecious stones.

Photo by: Silicon image © 2012 Ryoji Tanaka. Used with permission of Ryoji Tanaka. All rights reserved.

Copper

Thanks to its ductility, malleability, thermal and electrical conductivity, and resistance to corrosion, copper is one of the world's most useful metals, its applications ranging from electrical wiring to jewellery to cooking pots. We have been using it for millennia, dating back to the Bronze Age. The average Australian home contains over 200 kilograms of copper; luckily, the metal is 100 per cent recyclable.

Photo by: Copper image © 2012 Ryoji Tanaka. Used with permission of Ryoji Tanaka. All rights reserved.

Platinum

Although we associate gold with scarcity, platinum is actually rarer. This is not because there's less of it — there's actually less gold in the Earth's crust than platinum — but there are far fewer platinum mines, which means it's harder for humans to obtain. Just 192 tonnes of platinum were mined worldwide in 2011, compared to the 2700 tons of gold.

Photo by: Platinum image © 2012 Ryoji Tanaka. Used with permission of Ryoji Tanaka. All rights reserved.

Sulfur

By itself, sulfur has no smell, even though the odour of "brimstone" (an old name for sulfur) is associated with the underworld. This is because pure sulfur is volcanic in origin, and when it oxidises, it gives off the strong aroma associated with volcanoes. Sulfides are also responsible for the smells of onion, garlic, rotten eggs and skunks.

In this image, elemental sulfur has been overheated, then photographed through a polarising microscope.

Photo by: Sulfur image © 2010 Ryoji Tanaka. Used with permission of Ryoji Tanaka. All rights reserved.

Chromium

Although relatively new to the Western world, Chromium has been used by the Chinese for at least 2000 years, having been found coating the weapons of the Terracotta Army. Thanks to its high resistance to corrosion, its hardness and its stabilising properties, it's a fantastic substance for either mixing into alloys or plating — as you might have guessed from its use in vehicles, such as chrome-plated hubcaps and motorcycle engines.

Photo by: Chromium image © 2011 Ryoji Tanaka. Used with permission of Ryoji Tanaka. All rights reserved.

Palladium

Rare metal palladium has a number of uses, such as dental fillings, surgical instruments and white gold — but by far the most interesting property of the metal is that it is capable of absorbing 800 to 900 times its own volume in hydrogen, soaking it up like a sponge. This makes the metal invaluable in the construction of catalytic converters — devices designed to purify toxic exhaust by-products in cars.

Photo by: Palladium image © 2012 Ryoji Tanaka. Used with permission of Ryoji Tanaka. All rights reserved.

Muonionalusta meteorite

This is not a single metal, but a fragment of the Muonionalusta meteorite, made up of 91.5 per cent iron and 8.42 per cent nickel, which fell to Earth in northern Scandinavia in around 1 million BCE. It also contains trace amounts of gallium, germanium, iridium, chromite, daubréelite, schreibersite, akaganéite, stishovite and inclusions of troilite. The fascinating pattern on the surface is known as Widmanstätten patterns or Thomson structures, and is caused by interwoven bands of kamacite and taenite, cooled very slowly over a very long period of time — as in, 100 to 10,000 degrees Celsius per million years.

Photo by: Muonionalusta meteorite image © 2011 Ryoji Tanaka. Used with permission of Ryoji Tanaka. All rights reserved.

Neon

Neon — most commonly used in advertising signs — doesn't glow like this on its own. It has to be placed in a vacuum discharge tube, which causes the gas to light up with an electrical charge. It naturally glows orange-red; other colours are produced using argon, mercury and phosphor, mixed in various configurations to produce more than 150 colours. Since neon has a melting point of -248.59 degrees Celsius, it's also used as a cryogenic refrigerant in its liquid form.

Photo by: Neon image © 2011 Ryoji Tanaka. Used with permission of Ryoji Tanaka. All rights reserved.

Gold

Although gold is the metal we associate with preciousness, it's not the most valuable metal in the world. That honour goes to rhodium, followed by platinum. Gold comes in at third. In fact, most of the gold you'll see in circulation has been alloyed; in its pure state, it's so soft that you can mould it with your hands, making it all but useless for most applications.

Photo by: Gold image © 2010 Ryoji Tanaka. Used with permission of Ryoji Tanaka. All rights reserved.

Molybdenum

Molybdenum has a very high melting point — 2623 degrees Celsius. This makes it useful for high-heat applications, both alloyed with steel and in a more pure form. In fact, during the first and second world wars, demand for the metal experienced a sharp spike. It was used in armour plating as a substitute for tungsten as supplies of that latter metal depleted — and in heavy artillery weapons, since the heat produced to fire a cannon shell was hot enough to melt steel.

Photo by: Molybdenum image © 2012 Ryoji Tanaka. Used with permission of Ryoji Tanaka. All rights reserved.

Cuprosklodowskite

Not an element but a mineral, cuprosklodowskite was so named because it was (mistakenly) believed to be a form of sklodowskite — a mineral named after Marie Curie, whose maiden name was Sklodowska. As it turned out, cuprosklodowskite is actually a form of uranium — and radioactive to boot.

You can see more of Ryoji Tanaka's work on both his blog and his Flickr page. Don't forget to snoop around his other galleries, either. His scientific collection is particularly wonderful.

Photo by: Cuprosklodowskite image © 2011 Ryoji Tanaka. Used with permission of Ryoji Tanaka. All rights reserved.

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