Antimony industry

Antimony is a chemical element boasting fascinating history and interesting properties; the element that has been long and extensively in use; the element that has been important not only in the evolution of science and technology, but also in culture. Historians believe that the first antimony producers lived in Ancient East about 5 thousand years ago.
Antimony: Historical information and origin of the name. Similar to gold, mercury, copper and six other elements, antimony has been known from the prehistoric times, though the name of its discoverer is unknown. Antimony was used in Babylon 3 thousand years 3 BC in making vessels. The Latin name of the element – stibium – was mentioned in the works of Pliny the Elder. In the meantime, the Greek word “στιβι” the name of the element originated from referred initially to the most widespread antimony-bearing mineral – antimony sulfide.

Only antimony sulfide was known in countries of ancient Europe. In the Middle Ages, it was used in production of antimony regulus or antimony metal, which was termed as a metalloid. Agricola, the most prominent medieval metallurgical scientist, wrote: “If, by using smelting, a certain portion of antimony is added to lead, then type-metal alloys can be produced to be further used in making type metal used by those who print books.” In other words, element No. 51 has been used in printing for many centuries.

The properties and methods of production of antimony, its compounds and alloys were first described in the famous book published in Europe in 1604 – The triumphal chariot of antimony”. The name “antimony” given by the author to naturally-occurred antimony sulfide was borrowed from the Greek word “ανεμον” meaning “the flower” (as its acicular needle-like crystals resembled flowers belonging to the composite family).

For a long time, both in our country and in other countries, the name “antimony” meant only antimony sulfide. Antimony metal was termed as regulus antimoni. In 1789, Lavoisier included antimony in the list of elements, having termed it as antimonie, which is still the French name of element No. 51. Its English and German versions are very similar to it – antimony, Antimon.

There is another interpretation of the name, according to which the Father Superior at the Schtalhausen Monastery, having paid attention to good health and weight gain of the pigs that licked some “dark-colored substance having metallic luster”, decided to add the substance to the food served to the monks. Forty monks died, suffering violent pangs. The substance was named as “antimonium” or “monk-killer” (for more detailed information see Jaroslav Hašek “Life Stone”).

The Russian name of this element – “surma” – is derived from the Turkish “sürme” that is translated as “rubbing over” or «darkening eyebrows”. Until the 19th century in Russia people used to say “to surma” or, in other words “to antimony eyebrows”, though eyebrows were darkened not only with antimony compounds. By the way, only one of them – the black modification of antimony trisulfide – was used to dye eyebrows. Later on, the same word was used as the Russian version of the name given to element No. 51.
Where is antimony used? Antimony metal has a very narrow field of application due to its brittleness. However, as antimony increases the hardness of other metals (tin, lead) and is not oxidized in the normal environment, metallurgists often add it to different alloys. The number of alloys that include element No. 51 approaches two hundred. The best known antimony alloys are hard lead (or antimonial lead), type metal, bearing metals.

Bearing metals are alloys of antimony and tin, lead and copper; the alloys sometimes can include zinc and bismuth. These alloys are comparatively fusible and are used in casting of bearing liners. The most commonly known alloys of this group – babbitts – contain from 4 to 15% of antimony. Babbitts are used in machine-tool building, railway transport and motor vehicles. Bearing metals are characterized by fairly high hardness, good abrasive wear resistance, and high corrosive resistance.
Antimony belongs to the few metals that expand during hardening. Due to this property of antimony, type metal – the alloy of lead (82%), tin (3%) and antimony (15%) – is perfect for filling molds used in manufacturing of typefaces; the characters cast from this metal produce clearly visible prints. Antimony adds hardness, impact resistance and strength to type metal.

Lead smelted with antimony (from 5 to 15%) is known as antimonial lead or hard lead. The hardness of lead is sizably increases when only 1% Sb is added to it. Hard lead is used in chemical machine-building and in making pipes used for transportation of aggressive liquids. It is also used for sheaths of telegraph, telephone and electrical cables, electrodes, and battery plates. By the way, battery plate manufacturing is one of the key areas of application of element No. 51. Antimony is also added to lead used in making shrapnel and bullets.

Antimony compounds are well known in industry. Antimony trioxide is used in production of matches and fireworks. Most of the antimonial materials are also produced from the above compound. Antimony pentasulfide is used in curing of raw rubber. “Medical” rubber containing Sb2S5 is of specific red color and highly elastic. Heat-resisting antimony trioxide is used in production of refractory paints, building materials, fabric, conveyer belts, and enamel.

Inter-metal compounds of antimony and aluminum, gallium and indium boast semi-conducting properties. Antimony is used to improve characteristics of one of the most important semi-conductors germanium.
Hydrated potassium antimonyl (tartar emetic) is used in production of pharmaceuticals intended for treatment of stomach disorders. Such compounds as Ethylstibanin, antimonyl sodium gluconate (Pentostam) and N – methylglucamine antimonate (Glucantime) is used in treatment of Leishmaniasis.

Quite a few antimony compounds can be added as coloring agents to dyes. For example, potassium antimonate (K2O • 2Sb2O5) is used extensively in ceramic production. Sodium meta-antimonate (NaSbO3), generally referred to as leukonin, is used in coatings of kitchen ware and in production of enamels and white milky glass. The famous paint “Naples Yellow” is actually lead antimonate. It is popular among artists as oil paint and it is also used in painting of ceramics and porcelain. Even antimony metal in the form of fine powder is used as paint. This powder constitutes the core of the well-known paint “iron black”.
In a word, antimony is one of the most ancient metals in the history of mankind and it still serves the needs of people.