#50, Tin

Tin is a metal from antiquity. Copper is most likely the first metal people ever worked. And they probably discovered that mixing in a little tin really helped. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, with tin making up about 1/8 (~12%) of the mixture. You’ve heard of the Bronze Age, I’m sure, so you can imagine how important tin was to early societies.

Tin is not nearly as abundant as copper but the ore of tin, cassiterite (SnO2), is easy to smelt. That made it available to ancient peoples who probably used wood charcoal for the task. The Latin word stannum is the source of the symbol (Sn) for tin. Our English word is of German origin. Tin mining in Cornwall, the southwest edge of the isle of Britain, dates from two thousand years before Christ.

If you ever fooled around with electronics you probably did some soldering. Most of the tin in the world goes into making solders. And much of the rest of the tin goes into making cans. We still call them “tin cans” and they simply call them “tins” in England and Australia. The cans are made of steel but they have a thin layer of tin on them. The material is actually called “tinplate” and has been used for decades to store food and other substances. The tin is corrosion-resistant so the cans (and the food) have a longer shelf life.

Steel cans get lined with plastic films these days. That way acidic foods like tomato sauce won’t eat away at the metals. Unfortunately some of the plastics aren’t the best and there have been concerns about BPA (Bisphenol-A) contamination. Tin itself is not biologically active. Tin poisoning is very rare, particularly from metallic tin and its inorganic compounds. Organic tin compounds, called stannanes, can be toxic, however.

Tin is the traditional gift for a tenth anniversary. It is supposed to be a symbol of durability. Being that we depend on tinned steel cans for our food and tin solder in our electronic devices I’d say element #50 will certainly endure.

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