Bismuth is a heavy metal that has garnered attention in materials science and beyond for its versatility and use across different applications. From stomach medicine like Pepto Bismol to cosmetics like nail polish and much more, bismuth is found in many commercial products. One of the properties that make bismuth so unique is its low melting point of 271°C (520°F).
Although this may seem like a minor feature, bismuth’s ability to melt at lower temperatures plays a part in every aspect of its journey from its extraction to its uses in the creation of bismuth crystal and bismuth alloys.
In this article, we’ll be covering how to melt bismuth, the role its melting point plays in its extraction, and the surprisingly large number of bismuth alloy applications.
A Quick Guide to Melting Bismuth
Melting bismuth is a relatively straightforward process once you have a general idea of what to do and what materials are required. Here’s a quick guide:
Preparing to Melt Bismuth
Before melting bismuth, it’s important to take proper safety precautions. Molten metal can be dangerous, which is why it is important to wear protective gloves, safety goggles and heat-resistant clothing when working with molten bismuth, and to work in a well-ventilated area.
To melt bismuth, you will need a few materials. First, you will need a metal pot or container that can withstand high temperatures. You will also need a heat source, such as a propane torch or an electric hot plate. If you plan casting the bismuth into a specific shape, a mold is also required.
When compared to many other metals, bismuth is rather easy to melt. Its melting point is low enough that it can be turned into a liquid state on a stove top. All you have to do is put the bismuth metal in a pot or container and start heating it up. It usually takes around 10 to 20 minutes to reach bismuth’s melting point of 271°C (520°F).
It’s important to keep the heat constant during this process to prevent the bismuth molten from solidifying too quickly. Once the bismuth has melted, a shiny layer may appear on the surface as impurities tend to rise to the top. If the aim is to make bismuth crystals, it is essential to skim off and discard this thin layer of impurities on a non-flammable surface.
What Happens When Bismuth Cools After Being Melted?
When bismuth cools from its molten metal state, it undergoes a fascinating transformation. Bismuth creates hopper crystals, which means that when it solidifies, it builds hard edges to form a cube due to its molecular makeup. This occurs because, as bismuth cools, its electrical charge is stronger at its edges than its face, causing more edges to take shape.
This creates the unusually pyramidal structure we associate with bismuth crystals. Also, during this process of crystal formation, the metal oxidizes and begins to display the unique rainbow colours that make it such a popular material in the creation of enchanting pieces of bismuth jewelry and decorative bismuth sculptures.
The Role Melting Plays in Bismuth Extraction
Bismuth’s low melting point is not only leveraged in the creation of crystals alone: it is also a significant aspect of one of bismuth’s primary extraction processes. The process is called the Betterton-Kroll technique, and it has gained acceptance and popularity when it comes to extracting bismuth from lead.
The separation of lead and bismuth in the Betterton-Kroll process is done by exploiting the difference in their melting points. The process starts with creating a molten bath of lead and bismuth, into which calcium and magnesium are introduced. This produces a new compound comprising bismuth, calcium, and magnesium, with a higher melting point and lower density relative to lead. These characteristics make it possible to separate the bismuth from the lead.
In the next step of the Betterton-Kroll process, chlorine is added to the bath to separate the pure bismuth metal from the calcium and magnesium. When chlorine is added, it reacts with the calcium and magnesium and produces calcium chloride and magnesium chloride. These compounds are then taken out of the bath. The outcome of this step is pure bismuth metal.
Bismuth alloys are mixtures of bismuth with other metals, and they are commonly used in various applications due to their unique properties. The most common alloy is bismuth-tin, which is widely used in the production of solder for plumbing and electronics. To make bismuth-tin solder, the two metals are melted together and allowed to cool into a solid alloy. The resulting alloy has a low melting point and good flowability, making it ideal for use in plumbing and electronics applications.
In plumbing, bismuth-tin solder is preferred for joining copper pipes and fittings due to its non-toxicity and its ability to avoid lead contamination in drinking water. For electronics, bismuth alloys are used in joining electronic components to printed circuit boards and other electronic assemblies. Bismuth is preferred over other metals for this purpose because it forms a strong and reliable bond with other metals, and it has a low melting point that helps to prevent damage to delicate electronic components during the soldering process.
Bismuth alloys are also used in the manufacture of fire sprinklers, as they have a low melting point and can be easily molded into complex shapes. Additionally, bismuth alloys are used in the aerospace industry for the manufacture of parts that require low-melting point alloys, such as in cryogenic systems.
The Bismuth Smith – Melding Science and Art to Create Gorgeous Bismuth Pieces
Whether you’re interested in creating bismuth crystals, casting metal alloys, or exploring the potential of this fascinating metal for other applications, there is no shortage of creative possibilities when it comes to working with molten bismuth.
If you’re interested in bismuth and want to experience this fascinating metal for yourself but you’re not in the mood for a DIY project, you can buy bismuth crystals from us! At The Bismuth Smith we take pride in leveraging our deep scientific understanding of bismuth to create beautiful works of art in the form of bismuth jewelry and sculpture. Check out our various product collections today, you’re bound to find a piece that speaks to you.