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Strange but True: An Elemental Quest for the Building Blocks of the Universe

Element collectors love the thrill of the chase but tread carefully when necessary
©Theodore Gray



bismuth

The periodic table of elements in Justin Urgitis's office is unusual. It contains the same notations for all the elements, including carbon, silicon and germanium, in the same positions, as does any other. But his table at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, Inc., also boasts lavish pictures of his own samples of carbon, silicon and germanium on it, thanks to a large (and growing) collection at his home in Uncasville, Conn. In fact, it allows him to use that age-old line: "Want to come upstairs and see my barium?"

A small but growing number of element collectors—enabled by the vast marketplace of the Internet—can actually extend such invitations. Elements-seller Dave Hamric of Metallium, Inc., says he has about 2,000 names on his mailing list. Using the periodic table as a shopping list, they gather elements used either in technical applications or compounds mixed with other elements or in nearly pure form, amassing collections that can be beautiful, instructive and representative of the fundamental components of our universe.

Urgitis' longtime interest in chemistry is typical of his fellow element collectors. "In high school, I loved going to class and seeing the teacher's demonstration of something in the lab, maybe blowing something up," he says. He often proposed dangerous experiments that his teacher nixed, such as producing nitrogen triiodide, a contact explosive, in his high school lab. Then, in college, where he earned a degree in forensic chemistry, he began to acquire iodine, magnesium, aluminum, cobalt and other elements in pure or nearly pure form. The samples of these common elements can cost as little as a few dollars.

One day, "it occurred to me that it would be fun to have samples of all of them," he remembers. He found some Web sites devoted to element collecting, and over the past five years has assembled a hoard of nearly every one that it is possible to acquire—82 of the 118 known or presumed elements, by his count though this number varies from collector to collector. (The remaining elements are too radioactive, expensive and/or rare to collect even in small quantities.)

Thirty years ago, before the Internet, an element collector could not have made such rapid progress. Sales venues like eBay now list thousands of specimens for sale at any one time, making collecting far less burdensome than searching in person through chemical supply stores and curiosity shops. "I have every stable element on the periodic table, plus thorium and radium," Urgitis says, and he treats these mildly radioactive elements carefully.

Some collectors still acquire a few specimens for the collection the old-fashioned way. They pull tungsten filaments from lightbulbs, cannibalize silicon chips, find sulfur compounds in pharmacies, chip magnesium from campfire starters, and buy neodymium magnets. Or, like Heather Harrison, a mechanical engineer in Salt Lake City, they extract radioactive americium from smoke detectors. Harrison is a collector of old recordings, wine, and antiques (she spoke over a collectible telephone from the 1920s when interviewed for this article)—"the sort of person you'd read about someday being killed in an avalanche of her own collections," she says. "For me elements are just a part of that pattern," one she memorized in the form of the periodic table as a child.

She began seriously acquiring elements three years ago and is currently about 15 specimens short of making her collection as complete as it can get. "I'm missing osmium, iridium and some of the remaining platinum-group metals," she says. Retailers typically make such precious elements affordable by selling them in minute quantities. Most collectors interested in buying the rare metal rhenium, for instance—as Harrison recently did—will have to be satisfied with a tiny amount, because its price in nearly pure form has fluctuated around $10,000 per ounce.

Harrison keeps her mercury, which is toxic, in a bottle cradled in foam and sealed in an airtight case. Her specimens of rubidium and cesium would ignite or explode with exposure to air, so she purchased them entombed within sturdy acrylic blocks. Many easily available elements such as sodium and fluorine are dangerous if touched, inhaled or allowed to combine with others. Collectors reduce the risks by researching the toxicity and dangers of every element they acquire, keeping their baubles out of the reach of pets and children, and adding to their collections in small quantities.

"You have to research every one of them for toxicity," says Harrison, who uses the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics as a guide. "Risks can be managed, but you need to understand what you have. The vast majority of elements are quite safe."

Given the perceived dangers, she does not share her enthusiasm for elements with everyone. "If I talk to people who are not scientifically inclined or are afraid of science, I might not want to say anything about it," she says. "They might get the idea that I'm a mad scientist who cares nothing about safety. I may be a mad scientist, but I'm far too safety conscious to be a real mad scientist."

For these element collectors the risks are just part of the fun. "There are only a small number of icons that are universally recognized," says Theodore Gray, an element-collecting guru and Illinois software developer who manages a spectacular element resource at periodictable.com. "The periodic table is one of them. We don't often think of it as something populated by real objects, and it's a revelation when you can see it's made of real stuff, not just words printed in the table."

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