magnesium (măgnē´zēəm, –zhəm), metallic chemical element; symbol Mg; at. no. 12; at. wt. 24.3050; m.p. about 648.8°C; b.p. about 1,090°C; sp. gr. 1.738 at 20°C; valence +2. In 1808, Sir Humphry Davy discovered magnesium in its oxide, although it is not certain that he isolated the metal. Pure magnesium was isolated substantially by A. A. B. Bussy in 1828 by chemical reduction of the chloride. Magnesium was first isolated electrolytically by Michael Faraday in 1833.
Magnesium is a ductile, silver-white, chemically active metal with a hexagonal close-packed crystalline structure. It is malleable when heated. Magnesium is one of the alkaline-earth metals in Group 2 of the periodic table. It reacts very slowly with cold water. It is not affected by dry air but tarnishes in moist air, forming a thin protective coating of basic magnesium carbonate, MgCO3·Mg(OH)2. When heated, magnesium powder or ribbon ignites and burns with an intense white light and releases large amounts of heat, forming the oxide, magnesia, MgO. A magnesium fire cannot be extinguished by water, since water reacts with hot magnesium and releases hydrogen. Magnesium reacts with the halogens and with almost all acids. It is a powerful reducing agent and is used to free other metals from their anhydrous halides.
Magnesium forms many compounds. The oxide, hydroxide, chloride, carbonate, and sulfate are commercially important. They are used in ceramics, cosmetics, fertilizers, insulation, leather tanning, and textile processing. Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate heptahydrate, MgSO4·7H2O), milk of magnesia (magnesium hydroxide, Mg(OH)2), and citrate of magnesia are used in medicine. Magnesium reacts with organic halides to form the Grignard reagents of organic chemistry.
Magnesium is the eighth most abundant element in the earth's crust but does not occur uncombined in nature. It is found in abundance in the minerals brucite, magnesite, dolomite, and carnalite. It is also found (as the silicate) in asbestos, meerschaum, serpentine, and talc. Magnesium chloride is found in seawater, brines, and salt wells. Mineral waters often contain salts of magnesium; the magnesium ion imparts a bitter flavor. Magnesium is a constituent of the chlorophyll in green plants and is necessary in the diet of animals and humans.
Two methods of producing magnesium commercially are used. The principal method is the electrolysis of fused magnesium chloride, which is used in the extraction of magnesium from seawater (the principal source) and from dolomite. In recovery from seawater, the magnesium is precipitated as magnesium hydroxide by treatment with lime (calcium oxide) obtained from oyster shells. The hydroxide is collected and treated with hydrochloric acid to form the chloride. The chloride is fused and electrolyzed, forming magnesium metal and chlorine gas. The molten metal is cast into ingots for further processing; the chlorine gas is made into hydrochloric acid and is reused to form magnesium chloride. About 1 lb of magnesium is recovered from each 100 gal of seawater; the oceans are a virtually inexhaustible source of this metal. A second method of magnesium production, called the ferrosilicon process, involves the reduction of magnesium oxide (prepared by calcining dolomite) with an iron-silicon alloy.
Magnesium is a commercially important metal with many uses. It is only two thirds as dense as aluminum. It is easily machined, cast, forged, and welded. It is used extensively in alloys, chiefly with aluminum and zinc, and with manganese. Magnesium alloys were used as early as 1910 in Germany. Early structural uses of magnesium alloys were in aircraft fuselages, engine parts, and wheels. They are now also used in jet-engine parts, rockets and missiles, luggage frames, portable power tools, and cameras and optical instruments. Duralumin and magnalium are alloys of magnesium. The metal is also used in pyrotechnics, especially in incendiary bombs, signals, and flares, and as a fuse for thermite. It is used in photographic flashbulbs and is added to some rocket and missile fuels. It is used in the preparation of malleable cast iron. An important use is in preventing the corrosion of iron and steel, as in pipelines and ship bottoms. For this purpose a magnesium plate is connected electrically to the iron. The rapid oxidation of the magnesium prevents the slower oxidation and corrosion of the iron.