The similar-sounding metals magnesium and manganese have similar histories. Both metals originate in the region of Magnesia in Thessaly, Greece. One mineral from there was called magnesia negra by medieval alchemists. The other was called magnesia alba, and later just magnesia.
The English chemist Humphry Davy in 1808 used electrolysis on treated magnesia and produced the metal now called magnesium. As it happens, the compound magnesium sulfate had already been in use in England for 200 years. The compound's other name is Epsom salts, from the spring of beneficial water in Epsom, England.
Magnesium is used extensively in industry as a structural metal, and has been for over a hundred years. Like iron, aluminum, and copper, it appears to be solidly embedded in the manufacturing.
Mining and Production
By far most (80%) of the world's magnesium is produced in China, where it is consumed. Several other countries produce magnesium, including the United States by US Magnesium from the waters of the Great Salt Lake.
A very common source of magnesium is the mineral dolomite, which is magnesium limestone. Another source is seawater or suitable mineral springs. In either case, the original magnesium compound can be converted to magnesium oxide, then heated intensely with silicon to produce magnesium vapor. This is China's process. Alternatively, electrolysis of brine or mineral water will plate magnesium onto the cathode.
Properties and Uses
Magnesium is a strong, light-weight silvery metal, similar to aluminum. Although it is stable in air after quickly forming an oxide surface, strips and powders burn with an intense brilliant light. Because of this, magnesium is the active ingredient in flash powder, flash bulbs, and white fireworks. Once it gets burning, magnesium will react with nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water as well as oxygen. The fire can only be stopped by smothering.
Epsom salts, referred to earlier, are magnesium sulfate. Epsom salts are used in bath salts and have several medical uses including relieving sore muscles and drawing out splinters.
Magnesium alloys are used widely as a structural metal for their light weight, with precautions taken against fire. It is also used in the production of iron and titanium because of its affinity for ions in the ores of those metals (sulfide and chloride, respectively). Premium car hubcaps are, of course, "mag wheels".
This nontoxic, light-weight metal with chemical versatility is used in a wide variety of alloys, compounds, and specialty fabrications. Magnesium is everywhere.