Updated: Jan 14, 2022
Things You Might Not Know About This Metallic Element
Zinc is a blue-gray metallic element, sometimes called spelter. You come in contact with this metal every day, and not only that, your body needs it to survive.
Fast Facts: Zinc
Element Name: Zinc
Element Symbol: Zn
Atomic Number: 30
Appearance: Silver-gray metal
Group: Group 12 (transition metal)
Period: Period 4
Discovery: Indian metallurgists before 1000 BCE
Fun Fact: Zinc salts burn blue-green in a flame.
Here’s a collection of 10 interesting facts about the element zinc:
Zinc has the element symbol Zn and atomic number 30, making it a transition metal and the first element in Group 12 of the periodic table. Sometimes zinc is considered to be a post-transition metal.
The element name is believed to come from the German word “zinke,” which means “pointed.” This is likely a reference to the pointed zinc crystals that form after zinc is smelted. Paracelsus, a Swiss-born, German Renaissance physician, alchemist, and astrologer, is credited with giving zinc its name. Andreas Marggraf is credited with isolating the element zinc in 1746, by heating calamine ore and carbon together in a closed vessel. However, English metallurgist William Champion had actually patented his process for isolating zinc several years earlier. While Champion may have been the first to isolate zinc, smelting of the element had been in practice in India since the 9th century BCE. According to the International Zinc Association (ITA), zinc was recognized as a unique substance in India by 1374 and is believed to have been discovered by Indian metallurgists before 1000 BCE.
Although zinc was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans, it was not as common as iron or copper, probably because the element boils away prior to reaching the temperature required to extract it from ore. However, artifacts do exist proving its early use, including a sheet of Athenian zinc, dating back to 300 BCE. Because zinc is often found with copper, the metal’s use was more common as an alloy rather than as a pure element.
Zinc is an essential mineral for human health. It is the second-most abundant metal in the body, after iron. The mineral is important for immune function, white blood cell formation, egg fertilization, cell division, and a host of other enzymatic reactions. Zinc deficiency may also be a causal factor in age-related vision deterioration. Foods rich in zinc include lean meat and seafood. Oysters are particularly rich in zinc.
While it’s important to get enough zinc, too much can cause problems—including suppressing the absorption of iron and copper. Ingesting coins containing zinc has been known to cause death, as the metal reacts with gastric juice, corroding the gastrointestinal tract and producing zinc intoxication. One noteworthy side effect of excessive zinc exposure is a permanent loss of smell and/or taste. The FDA has issued warnings regarding zinc nasal sprays and swabs. Problems from excessive ingestion of zinc lozenges or from industrial exposure to zinc have also been reported.
Zinc has many uses. It is the fourth-most common metal for industry, after iron, aluminum, and copper. Of the 12 million tons of the metal produced annually, about half goes to galvanization. Brass and bronze production account for another 17% of zinc’s usage. Zinc, its oxide, and other compounds are found in batteries, sunscreen, paints, and other products.
Although galvanization is used to protect metals against corrosion, zinc actually does tarnish in air. The product is a layer of zinc carbonate, which inhibits further degradation, thus protecting the metal beneath it.
Zinc forms several important alloys. Foremost among these is brass, an alloy of copper and zinc.
Almost all mined zinc (95%) comes from zinc sulfide ore. Zinc is easily recycled and about 30% of the zinc produced annually is recycled metal.
Zinc is the 24th-most abundant element in the Earth’s crust.