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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Thursday, April 18, 2024
Tin Buttons

When tin can and can't

SCIENCE

Legend says that Napoleon's undefeated army of 600,000 men, marching towards Russia in December of 1812, was overcome by a simple chemical reaction.

All the men's uniforms had buttons made of tin, which slowly converted from the silvery "beta"-form of tin crystal to the brittle "alpha"-form in the bitter cold temperatures. As this form of tin, known as tin pest, accumulated, the buttons disintegrated into powder, and Napoleon's army experienced mass wardrobe malfunctions that would eventually result in their defeat.

Although most historians and chemists believe this story to be a great exaggeration (especially because the impure tin used in the buttons would need a much longer time to disintegrate) the story has given tin an element of fame.

Tin (Sn), atomic number 50 (indicating that it has 50 protons) is nestled in the fourth row of the periodic table. As the 49th most common element, tin is mostly found as tin dioxide, in a mineral called cassiterite.

Over the past several centuries tin has been used for a variety of purposes beyond buttons including its incorporation into alloys like bronze, which is made of tin and copper, or pewter, which is made of tin, copper, antimony and lead.

Historically, tin has been used in a large variety of consumer products including tin cans and tin foil. Both cans and foil are now made with cheaper materials like steel and aluminum, though the objects are often still referred to as containing tin.

Although tin may not have been the downfall of Napoleon, its usefulness in chemistry, industry and in consumer products cannot be doubted.

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