The mineral borax is a white salt used for centuries as a detergent and glaze. As it happens, borax is sodium borate, and various chemists in the early 19th century extracted from it the element boron.
Boron is not very common, but it is found as borax deposits in dry or seasonal lake beds in Turkey, in Southern California, and other places. Mining and production consist simply of excavating the salt deposits and purifying them. Turkey produces half of the world's boron, with the US supplying another quarter.
Harmony Borax started mining the mineral in Death Valley, California, in the 1880s. Borax was hauled out by 20-mule team. That procedure only lasted for a few years, but it became the permanent image of Boraxo soap and detergent (right).
Properties and Uses
Boron is an uncommon element that forms long-chain molecules much like silicon and carbon. Pure boron is difficult to prepare. Again, much like carbon, it can take several forms, including a brown powder and a black solid.
As aluded to above, one common use of boron is in cleaning products, including detergent, bleach, and soap. These water-soluble borate and perborate compounds explain why boron is mined from lakebeds. Streams and lakes dissolve and concentrate the small amount of boron found on Earth.
Pyrex glass is a borosilicate glass substitute found in laboratories everywhere. It does not shatter when heated, although it can still break from impacts.
In agriculture, boron is a necessary trace nutrient for plants. Therefore, small amounts are included in fertilizers. Animals seem to require tiny amounts of boron as well, but plants in the diet supply enough.