The ancients were familiar with antimony both as a metal and in its sulfide form. Fragments of a Chaldean vase made of antimony have been estimated to date from about 4000 bc. The Old Testament tells of Queen Jezebel using the naturally occurring sulfide of antimony to beautify her eyes. Pliny, during the 1st century ad, wrote of seven different medicinal remedies using stibium or antimony sulfide. Early writings of Dioscorides, dating from about the same time, mention metallic antimony. Records of the 15th century show the use of the substance in alloys for type, bells, and mirrors. In 1615 Andreas Libavius, a German physician, described the preparation of metallic antimony by the direct reduction of the sulfide with iron; and a later chemistry textbook by Lémery, published in 1675, also describes methods of preparation of the element. In the same century, a book summarizing available knowledge of antimony and its compounds was purportedly written by a Basil Valentine, allegedly a Benedictine monk of the 15th century, whose name appears on chemical writings over a span of two centuries. The name antimony appears to be derived from the Latin antimonium, in a translation of a work by the alchemist Geber, but its real origin is uncertain.
Occurrence and distribution
Antimony is about one-fifth as abundant as arsenic, contributing on the average about one gram to every ton of the Earth’s crust. Its cosmic abundance is estimated as about one atom to every 5,000,000 atoms of silicon. Small deposits of native metal have been found, but most antimony occurs in the form of more than 100 different minerals. The most important of these is stibnite, Sb2S3. Small stibnite deposits are found in Algeria, Bolivia, China, Mexico, Peru, South Africa, and in parts of the Balkan Peninsula. Some economic value also attaches to kermesite (2Sb2S3 · Sb2O3), argentiferous tetrahedrite [(Cu,Fe)12Sb4S13], livingstonite (HgSb4S7), and jamesonite (Pb4FeSb6S14). Small amounts are also recoverable from the production of copper and lead. About half of all the antimony produced is reclaimed from scrap lead alloy from old batteries, to which antimony had been added to provide hardness.
Two stable isotopes, nearly equal in abundance, occur in nature. One has mass 121 and the other mass 123. Radioactive isotopes of masses 120, 122, 124, 125, 126, 127, 129, and 132 have been prepared.
Commercial production and uses
High-grade or enriched stibnite reacts directly with scrap iron in the molten state, liberating antimony metal. The metal can also be obtained by conversion of stibnite to the oxide, followed by reduction with carbon. Sodium sulfide solutions are effective leaching agents for the concentration of stibnite from ores. Electrolysis of these solutions produces antimony. After further purification of the crude antimony, the metal, called regulus, is cast into cakes.
About half of this antimony is used metallurgically, principally in alloys. Because some antimony alloys expand on solidifying (a rare characteristic that they share with water), they are particularly valuable as castings and type metal; the expansion of the alloy forces the metal to fill the small crevices of casting molds. Moreover, the presence of antimony in type metal, which also includes lead and small amounts of tin, increases the hardness of the type and gives it a sharp definition. Even when added in minor quantities, antimony imparts strength and hardness to other metals, particularly lead, with which it forms alloys used in plates of automobile storage batteries, in bullets, in coverings for cables, and in chemical equipment such as tanks, pipes, and pumps. Combined with tin and lead, antimony forms antifriction alloys called babbitt metals that are used as components of machine bearings. With tin, antimony forms such alloys as britannia metal and pewter, used for utensils. Antimony is also used as an alloy in solder. Highly purified antimony is used in semiconductor technology to prepare the intermetallic compounds indium, aluminum, and gallium antimonide for diodes and infrared detectors.
Antimony compounds (especially the trioxide) are widely used as flame retardants in paints, plastics, rubber, and textiles. Several other antimony compounds are used as paint pigments; tartar emetic (an organic salt of antimony) is used in the textile industry to aid in binding certain dyes to fabrics and in medicine as an expectorant and a nauseant.
Biological and physiological significance
Antimony and a number of its compounds are highly toxic. In fact, the use of antimony compounds for medicinal purposes was temporarily outlawed several centuries ago because of the number of fatalities they had caused. A hydrated potassium antimonyl tartrate called “tartar emetic” is currently used in medicine as an expectorant, diaphoretic, and emetic. The maximum tolerable concentration of antimony dust in air is about the same as for arsenic, 0.5 milligrams per cubic metre.