Chromium: the essentials

Chromium is steel-gray, lustrous, hard, metallic, and takes a high polish. Its compounds are toxic. It is found as chromite ore. Siberian red lead (crocoite, PrCrO4) is a chromium ore prized as a red pigment for oil paints.

Emerald is a form of beryl (a beryllium aluminium silicate) which is green because of the inclusion of a little chromium into the beryl crytal lattice in place of some of the aluminium ions. Similarly, traces of chromium incorporated into the crystal lattice of corundum (crystalline aluminium oxide, Al2O3) as a replacement for some of the Al3+ ions results in another highly coloured gem stone, in this case the red ruby.

Table: basic information about and classifications of chromium.

Chromium: historical information

Chromium was discovered by Louis-Nicholas Vauquelin at 1797 in France. Origin of name: from the Greek word "chroma" meaning "colour", named for the many coloured compounds known for chromium..

In the mid 18th century analysis of Siberian "red lead" (PbCrO4, crocoite) from Siberia showed that it contained quite a lot of lead, but also a further material. This was eventually identified as chromium oxide. Chromium oxide was discovered in 1797 by Louis-Nicholas Vauquelin, who prepared the metal itself in the following year. Starting from crocoite the procedure was to powder the mineral and to precipitate the lead out through its reaction with hydrochloric acid (HCl in water). The residue was chromium oxide, CrO3. Heating this oxide in an oven in the presence of charcoal as a reducing agent gave the metal itself.

Vauquelin also analysed an emerald from Peru and discovered that its green colour is because of the presence of the new element, chromium. In fact, the name chromium is from the Greek word "chroma" meaning "colour", so named because of the many different coloured compounds displayed by chromium.

A year or two after Vauquelin's discovery, a German chemist named Tassaert working in Paris found chromium in an ore now called chromite. This ore, Fe(CrO2)2, is now an important source of chromium.

Chromium: physical properties

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Chromium: orbital properties

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Isolation: it is not normally necessary to make chromium in the laboratory as it is so readily available commercially. The most useful source of chromium commercially is the ore chromite, FeCr2O4. Oxidation of this ore by air in molten alkali gives sodium chromate, Na2CrO4 in which the chromium is in the +6 oxidation state. This is converted to the Cr(III) oxide Cr2O3 by extraction into water, precipitation, and reduction with carbon. The oxide is then further reduced with aluminium or silicon to form chromium metal.

Cr2O3 + 2Al → 2Cr + Al2O3

2Cr2O3 + 3Si → 4Cr + 3SiO2

Another kind of isolation is by electroplating processes. This involves the dissolution of Cr2O3 in sulphuric acid to give an electrolyte used for chromium electroplating.

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