TITLE: Boron Nitride Becomes Useful for Many Applications
Carbon is one of the world’s most special elements and appears in many forms. There are glittering diamonds, lubricating graphite and exotic fullerenes. It manages these many changes because the atoms bond to form all manner of combinations: pyramids and pentagons, squares, spheres and hexagons.
Boron nitride is the compound version of carbon. Unlike carbon, it does not appear in nature but was discovered in the 18th century in a laboratory experiment and did not come into any commercial use until well into the 1940s.
It is made by reacting boric acid or boron trioxide with either ammonia or urea, all within a nitrogen atmosphere. The upshot is a crystalline product that is almost as hard as diamond – the world’s hardest element. And recently, scientists at China’s Yanshan University have managed to produce a cubic form of the compound that that is even harder than synthetic diamonds.
Even without this latest development, boron nitride has some advantages over diamond. It has an extremely high resistance to heat and is unreactive with metals. This makes it an even better abrasive than diamond.
It also appears in a hexagonal form just like carbon when it is graphite.
In this manner, it can also be used as a lubricant. Its relative chemical inertness means that is can also be used in many cosmetics. Outside of cosmetics, it has many other uses where it replaces graphite, especially in electronics and high-heat ceramics applications. It replaces graphite in such applications as plastics, pencil leads, components for laser printers and even in aerospace.
The preference here is for boron nitride over graphite, because the former does not need the addition of a gas or a liquid to aid its lubricating effects. It has an interesting application in shooting. If bullets are coated in this compound, they act to clean the inside of the gun barrel of oxidation. This means the resulting shot will be straighter.
Another recent comparable product to carbon appears in the development of boron nitride nanotubes. But unlike the carbon version, these new nanotubes act as insulators, are almost inert chemically and will not break down at high temperatures. These nanotubes are likely to be incorporated into aerospace components to provide added strength but at the same time retain lightness.
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