The Brilliant Element Barium

Barite with Quartz

The Element Barium

The element barium is a soft, ductile, and silvery-white metal classified as an alkaline-earth metal on the periodic table. Barium’s compounds are used in a variety of environments and industries and have been an area of interest since the 1600s. It is a very “heavy” element, which has implications for its uses and compounds.

Ten Interesting Facts About Barium

  1. Barium was named after the word ‘bary’, which is Greek for ‘heavy’.
  2. It’s said that barite (composed of barium sulfate), was used in ancient witchcraft.
  3. Our Earth’s crust is about 0.0425% barium.
  4. When barium sulfate was discovered, it was mistaken to be the philosopher’s stone.
  5. It’s that said Galileo was fascinated by barium sulfate’s phosphorescent glow.
  6. The element is often alloyed with other metals.
  7. Barium is used in x-rays because it is a heavier element. Heavier elements absorb & scatter x-rays more efficiently. It is also less toxic than lead or mercury.
  8. A compound of barium, Yttrium barium copper oxide, is a high-temperature superconductor.
  9. Marie Curie separated barium compounds from pitchblende while looking for radium. She separated the radium from the barium with incredible difficulty.
  10. Barium compounds, like barium chloride or barium nitrate, give fireworks a green color

Barium in the Periodic Table

Barium is soft, reactive, silvery-white alkaline-earth metal with two valence electrons. The element’s electronegativity is measured as a 0.9 (Pauling Scale) and it is more reactive than strontium and calcium. In nature, this element is always found combined with other elements. Barium is located below strontium and above radium on the periodic table.

Barium has atomic symbol Ba, and atomic number 56. Barium’s electron configuration is 1s22s22p63s23p63d104s24p64d105s25p66s2 , or [Xe]6s2

A Barium Enema or Barium Swallow

Barium sulfate is used in ‘barium enema’ or ‘barium swallow’ tests.

These tests are used to examine our internal body parts (e.g. intestines and stomach). Furthermore, the procedure for these tests vary – yet they are rather similar.

First, a suspension of barium sulfate is inserted, through consumption or enema, into the body being examined. Subsequently, as this liquid suspension travels through the body, it ‘coats’ certain tissues and linings. By doing this, a clear ‘outline’ of bodily tissues is generated, and x-ray imaging with greater contrast is produced.

Following this procedure, irregularities in these outlines are identified, and are used to learn about the examined body.

Barium’s Effects in the Environment

Evidently, barium is tremendously useful since the element’s compounds are used in various industries; for this reason, barium is extracted quite often. As a result, it’s released into the environment through water bodies, the air, and the soil. And the environment affected by this in different aspects.

For example, when barium is released into lakes, rivers, and streams, different compounds are absorbed by aquatic organisms. Oftentimes, this leads to barium amassing in their bodies. In a similar vein, barium compounds pollute the atmosphere and damage our lungs when released into the air.

Barium’s Applications in Today’s World

What is barium used for?

Surprisingly, barium has many different uses. For example, barium’s compounds make paint, specialty glasses, rubber, and other materials as well. 

Furthermore, these compounds are used in a variety of settings (e.g. laboratories, manufacturing industries, medical sector). Here are a few uses of barium and its compounds in different environments:

  • Barium chloride (BaCl2·2H2O) is used as a chemical reagent in laboratories.
  • Surprisingly, barium fluoride (BaF2) can be used to make optical glasses in the manufacturing industry.
  • Also, drilling muds for oil in the petroleum industry use barium sulfate ( BaSO4)

Barium also comes in many different alloys. For example, it can be alloyed with nickel to be used in making spark-plug wires.

When and How was Barium Discovered?

Around the 1600s, Vincenzo Casciarolo found an intriguing pebble-like mineral in Bologna, Italy. Surprisingly, the pebble produced a bright glow when heated. This unique property attracted the attention of many people, including famous mathematician and astronomer, Galileo Galilei.

The excitement was short-lived because since this pebble had little to no real-life applications, it’s value was lowered. Despite this, the pebble was later identified as the mineral barite (barium sulfate, BaSO4).

Then, in 1808, Sir Humphry Davy used electrolysis to isolate the element barium, which barite is composed of. The interesting nature of the element, its uses, and its properties then began attracting the attention of current scientists.

Barium element on periodic table

Barium – compounds, reactions, isolation and oxidation states

Barium Compounds

When the mineral barite is heated with carbon, it reduces to barium sulfide. This barium sulfide is then treated upon to form other compounds of barium (e.g. carbonate).

Barium nitrate is a strong oxidizing agent, similar to other nitrates. Another barium compound, barium sulfate is highly insoluble, and barium ions can be used to detect small amounts of sulfate ions. Barium salts combined with concentrated sulfuric acid form barium sulfate along with the respective acid of the salt. This technique is commonly used in amateur labs to produce acids like perchloric acid or nitric acid. Barium compounds give a green color to fireworks and other pyrotechnics.

Toxicity of Barium

Soluble compounds of barium, along with barium carbonate and barium fluoride, are toxic and must be handled with care. Barium carbonate is used in some parts of the world as a rodenticide. However, because it resembled flour, it has been the cause of many poisonings and deaths.

Chemical Properties of Barium

Barium, when exposed to oxygen at room temperature, quickly oxidizes and produces BaO and BaO2. It is usually stored under mineral oil. The element barium reacts with acids, alcohol, and water. In fact, it vigorously reacts with water to form barium hydroxide. However, the reaction is not as violent as it is with the alkali metals.

Reaction with Water:

Ba(s) + 2H2O(g) → Ba(OH)2(aq) + H2(g)

Isolation of Barium

Commercially, the electrolysis of molten barium chloride (BaCl2) produces barium. Barium oxide (BaO) reacting with aluminum or silicon at high temperatures also produces pure barium.

Barium Oxidation States

This element has a +2 oxidation state in its compounds. 

Physical Properties of Barium

  • Symbol: Ba
  • Melting point: 1000 K
  • Boiling point: 2118 K
  • Density (g cm−3): 3.62
  • Atomic mass: 137.327
  • Atomic number: 56
  • Electronegativity: 0.9 (According to Pauling)
  • Classification:  Alkaline-earth metal of Group 2 (IIa)
  • Crustal abundance (ppm): 456
  • Electron configuration: [Xe] 6s2
  • Common stable isotopes: 130Ba, 132Ba, 134Ba, 135Ba, 136Ba, 137Ba, and 138Ba
  • Found naturally in the minerals:  Barite and witherite
  • Toxicity: All barium compounds are toxic except for barium sulfate, which is insoluble and can be swallowed!

Where Can I Buy Barium?

Amazon sells barium compounds. 

If you enjoyed learning about the element barium, check out all the other elements on our Interactive Periodic Table!