Lead is a main group element with a symbol Pb (Latin: plumbum). Lead has the atomic number 82. Lead is a soft, malleable poor metal, also considered to be one of the heavy metals. Lead has a bluish white color when freshly cut, but tarnishes to a dull grayish color when it is exposed to air and is a shiny chrome silver when melted into a liquid. Lead is used in building construction, lead-acid batteries, bullets and shot, weights, and is part of solder, pewter, and fusible alloys. Lead has the highest atomic number of all stable elements, although the next element, bismuth, has a half-life so long (longer than the estimated age of the universe) it can be considered stable. Like mercury, another heavy metal, lead is a potent neurotoxin that accumulates in soft tissues and bone over time.
Lead has a dull luster and is a dense, ductile, very soft, highly malleable, bluish-white metal that has poor electrical conductivity. This true metal is highly resistant to corrosion, and because of this property, it is used to contain corrosive liquids (e.g., sulfuric acid). Because lead is very malleable and resistant to corrosion it is extensively used in building construction, e.g., external coverings of roofing joints. Lead can be toughened by adding a small amount of antimony or other metals to it. It is a common misconception that lead has a zero Thomson effect. All lead, except 204Pb, is the end product of a complex radioactive decay (see isotopes of lead below).
Lead is one of the most used metals in industry, being just surpassed by other metals as iron, copper, zinc and aluminum. The main application of lead and of its oxide (PbO) is producing electrical batteries for vehicles. Lead alloys are largely used in industry. The addition of a small percentage of arsenic, or antimony, to the lead, increases its hardness and mechanical resistance, protecting it from abrasion. The calcium-lead and the tin-lead alloys are used in coating certain electrical cables. Current solder is a lead-tin alloy, in variable proportions in agreement with the requested melting point. The bismuth, cadmium or mercury addition can also affect the melting point of solder.
Most ores contain less than 10% lead, and ores containing as little as 3% lead can be economically exploited. Ores are crushed and concentrated by froth flotation typically to 70% or more. Sulfide ores are roasted, producing primarily lead oxide and a mixture of sulfates and silicates of lead and other metals contained in the ore. Lead oxide from the roasting process is reduced in a coke-fired blast furnace. This converts most of the lead to its metallic form. Three additional layers separate in the process and float to the top of the metallic lead. These are slag (silicates containing 1.5% lead), matte (sulfides containing 15% lead), and speiss (arsenides of iron and copper). These wastes contain concentrations of copper, zinc, cadmium, and bismuth that can be recovered economically, as can their content of unreduced lead. Metallic lead that results from the roasting and blast furnace processes still contains significant contaminants of arsenic, antimony, bismuth, zinc, copper, silver, and gold. The melt is treated in a reverberatory furnace with air, steam, and sulfur, which oxidizes the contaminants except silver, gold, and bismuth. The oxidized contaminants are removed by drossing, where they float to the top and are skimmed off. Most lead ores contain significant concentrations of silver, resulting in the smelted metal also containing silver as a contaminant. Metallic silver as well as gold is removed and recovered economically by means of the Parkes process. Desilvered lead is freed of bismuth according to the Betterton-Kroll process by treating it with metallic calcium and magnesium, which forms a bismuth dross that can be skimmed off. Very pure lead can be obtained by processing smelted lead electolytically by means of the Betts process. The process uses anodes of impure lead and cathodes of pure lead in an electrolyte of silica fluoride.
Production and recycling
Worldwide production and consumption of lead is increasing. Total annual production is about 8 million tonnes; about half is produced from recycled scrap. Top lead producing countries, as of 2008, are Australia, China, USA, Peru, Canada, Mexico, Sweden, Morocco, South Africa and North Korea., Australia, China and the United States account for more than half of primary production.
2007 mine production: 3,595,000 tonnes
At current use rates, the supply of lead is estimated to run out in 42 years. Environmental analyst, Lester Brown, however, has suggested lead could run out within 18 years based on an extrapolation of 2% growth per year. This may need to be reviewed to take account of renewed interest in recycling, and rapid progress in fuel cell technology.