BBC World Service


A close look at chemical elements, the basic building blocks of the universe. Where do we get them, what do we use them for and how do they fit into our economy?

Looking for recently uploaded episodes
Obscure Elements

30:00 | Sep 28th, 2016

In the final programme in our Elements series, Justin Rowlatt looks at the rarest and oddest members of the periodic table. Selenium, bismuth, molybdenum, antimony, rhenium, hafnium, zirconium, tellurium, thallium, barium. What are they? And what...Show More

Gold (Au)

29:59 | Sep 21st, 2016

Why do we value this practically useless metal so highly? And does it bring out the worst in human nature? In a second look at this most coveted of metals, Justin Rowlatt hears both sides of the age-old argument. Swiss investor and gold enthusias...Show More

Thorium (Th)

29:58 | Sep 16th, 2016

This radioactive metal holds the promise of thousands of years of energy for the world. But is it really any cleaner or safer than traditional uranium-based nuclear power? Chemistry Professor Andrea Sella of University College London takes the hel...Show More

Platinum group (Pt, Pd, Ru, Rh, Os, Ir)

30:00 | Sep 7th, 2016

Six extremely rare metals that clean your car exhaust and turbocharge industrial chemistry, but which are also the focus of a violent power struggle in South Africa. Presenter Laurence Knight heads to Johnson Matthey, a company that pioneered the ...Show More

Arsenic (As)

30:00 | Aug 31st, 2016

The macabre poison we know from crime novels and history books has some surprising modern uses. Justin Rowlatt travels the Subcontinent - first to India's Forest Research Institute in the Himalayas where Sadhna Tripathi explains why the chemical e...Show More

Silver (Ag)

29:57 | Aug 24th, 2016

The shiniest and showiest of metals is still mainly used in silverware. But it also has some surprisingly modern applications. Justin Rowlatt heads deep under the city streets to the sparkling London Silver Vaults to talk tableware and frivolities...Show More

Iodine (I)

29:59 | Aug 17th, 2016

Why does iodine deficiency still blight children in developing countries like India? Justin Rowlatt travels to Dehradun in the Himalayas with world expert Chandrakant Pandav to diagnose schoolchildren still suffering from the throat swelling calle...Show More

Hydrogen (H) - fusion

30:00 | May 31st, 2016

Could we finally be about to crack this source of potentially unlimited clean energy - thanks in part to a plethora of private sector tech startups? Laurence Knight travels to one such company, Tokamak Energy in the UK, to hear from plasma physic...Show More

Cadmium (Cd)

30:01 | May 25th, 2016

This toxic metal is slowly being phased out of our lives. But as presenter Justin Rowlatt discovers, while nickel-cadmium batteries may have disappeared from our gadgets, they still help to keep planes up in the air. Chemistry professor Andrea Sel...Show More

Potassium (K)

29:56 | May 18th, 2016

Potash plumps up fruit, vegetables and grains, and the potassium it contains is an essential nutrient. Yet India is completely dependent on imports of this critical fertiliser to feed its population. Presenter Justin Rowlatt visits a farm on the Gan...Show More

Hydrogen (H) - energy

29:58 | May 10th, 2016

Is the dream of a hydrogen-fuelled zero-carbon economy achievable? Presenters Justin Rowlatt and Laurence Knight ask where the hydrogen will come from and how we will store it. Professor Andrea Sella of University College London blows up a hydrogen ...Show More

Zinc (Zn)

29:32 | May 4th, 2016

The metal that brings shelter and good health to India's poorest. Presenter Laurence Knight travels to a bustling Delhi where Rahul Sharma of the International Zinc Association explains how this self-sacrificing chemical element fights off the ravage...Show More

Hydrogen (H) - water (part 2)

30:00 | Apr 27th, 2016

As climate change threatens to play havoc with the rain, could we instead draw our water directly from the ocean? In his second gulp of H2O, presenter Justin Rowlatt hears from climatologist Raymond Pierrehumbert about how global warming is causi...Show More

Hydrogen (H) - water (part 1)

30:01 | Apr 20th, 2016

Northwest India is fast running out of groundwater. As much of the world faces growing water scarcity, will mass migration and water conflicts become inevitable? Do we take water for granted at our peril? Presenter Justin Rowlatt hears from chemistry...Show More

Noble Gases (Ar, Ne, Kr, Xe)

29:38 | Mar 23rd, 2016

Neon, argon, krypton and xenon: Laurence Knight investigates their uses, from the blinding light of the arc welder's torch to the dying trade of the neon sign-making. Professor Andrea Sella explains how an alumnus of his home University College Lond...Show More

Germanium (Ge)

29:58 | Mar 16th, 2016

Nanotech, virtual reality, Moore's Law - we look at germanium, the substance that could oust the silicon from Silicon Valley, and one day help computers supercede your brain. IBM's head of innovation, Bernie Meyerson, showcases the company's new pro...Show More

Radioactives (Po, Ra, Rn)

30:06 | Mar 9th, 2016

Radium, polonium and radon may be names to make your hair stand on end, but are they actually useful for anything? And is our fear of them overbaked? Laurence Knight gets the chemistry rundown from Prof Andrea Sella of University College London at a ...Show More

Tantalum & Niobium (Ta, Nb)

30:01 | Mar 2nd, 2016

Is coltan - the notorious conflict mineral from which these two metals are derived - still being smuggled from DR Congo into Rwanda, to evade taxes and sourcing controls? Laurence Knight investigates the hi-tech roles to which these two chemical elem...Show More

Beryllium (Be)

21:04 | Oct 22nd, 2015

Rare and toxic, beryllium can do serious damage to your lungs. Presenter Laurence Knight explores whether and how we can make use of this metal safely. Prof Andrea Sella of University College London explains why beryllium's surprising scarcity is the...Show More

Magnesium (Mg)

34:30 | Sep 30th, 2015

This metal played a part in the worst car crash in history, the 1955 Le Mans disaster, helping to make the resulting inferno explosively dangerous. Yet despite its fiery reputation, and its proneness to corrosion, magnesium has regained its historic ...Show More

Titanium (Ti) - catalysts

28:55 | Sep 16th, 2015

Titanium is the magic metal that made possible the mass production of plastics and paints, as well as buildings that clean both themselves and the air around them. Presenter Laurence Knight heads to the Ineos oil refinery in Grangemouth, Scotland, t...Show More

Hydrogen (H) - acids

39:58 | Aug 19th, 2015

These powerful chemicals are essential to obtain the minerals that build our world, the fertilisers that feed the planet, and the fuels that propel our vehicles - as presenter Laurence Knight discovers on a trip to the Ineos Grangemouth oil refinery ...Show More

Oxygen (O) - industrial uses

33:06 | Aug 12th, 2015

Why is oxygen essential to steelmaking, how do you extract it from the air, and can you inhale too much of it? Answering these questions leaves presenter Justin Rowlatt almost breathless. Prof Andrea Sella demonstrates the convenience and power of t...Show More

Titanium (Ti) - materials

32:08 | Aug 5th, 2015

Stronger and more durable than steel, this glamorous metal crops up in sportscars, hip replacements and jewellery - but a new chemical process hopes one day to make it as common as steel. Prof Andrea Sella explains why this relatively widespread chem...Show More

Oxygen (O) - oxidation

38:24 | Jul 29th, 2015

The “element of life” also makes the air that we breathe a perilous and costly atmosphere in which to operate. Prof Andrea Sella of University College London provides presenter Justin Rowlatt with a characteristically striking argument for why oxyge...Show More

Cobalt (Co)

46:02 | Jul 22nd, 2015

Cobalt, the metal in magnets and phone batteries, is synonymous with the colour blue. But what exactly are magnets, how do they work and where are they used? And is some of the cobalt being mined by children? Presenter Laurence Knight hears from chem...Show More

Copper (Cu) - electricity

38:01 | Jun 25th, 2015

Copper has long been the metal of electricity generators and wiring. But presenter Justin Rowlatt asks whether new technologies herald the death of the old-fashioned electricity grid. Prof Andrea Sella of University College London explains the specia...Show More

Copper (Cu) - materials

45:41 | Jun 17th, 2015

Copper is the distinctive red metal in pots, pans and water pipes, and also plays a central role in whisky distillation. Presenter Laurence Knight and chemistry guru Professor Andrea Sella of University College London travel to the Abercrombie copper...Show More

Boron (B)

42:05 | Jun 11th, 2015

Boron is the mineral from the Wild West that stops glass from shattering and stops bullets in their tracks. Presenter Laurence Knight visits the Dixon Glass works to see why borosilicate glass is perfect for making chemistry equipment and much of the...Show More

Gallium & Indium (Ga, In)

49:27 | Jun 3rd, 2015

LED lighting, solar power and lasers are just some of the electronics revolutionised by two obscure chemical elements - gallium and indium. Laurence Knight hears from Mike Simpson of Philips why we will only need to replace our lightbulbs once every ...Show More

Iron (Fe) - industrialisation

31:02 | Apr 1st, 2015

Iron is the chemical element at the heart of steel, and by extension of industrialisation, so what does the collapse in iron ore prices say about the economic progress of China and India? Is the steel-making party over, or is a new one just about to ...Show More

Iron & Manganese (Fe, Mn) - steel-making

31:06 | Mar 25th, 2015

The two key ingredients that enabled the mass production of steel. We travel to Sheffield - the birthplace of modern steelmaking - to get up close to the technological mid-wife, a Bessemer converter. Plus we visit the modern Forgemasters steelworks, ...Show More

Iron (Fe) - the Industrial Revolution

32:28 | Mar 18th, 2015

In the first of three programmes about iron, Justin Rowlatt explores two moments in industrial history that transformed this most abundant of metal elements into the key material out of which modern life is constructed. And they both took place right...Show More

Technetium (Tc)

31:54 | Mar 11th, 2015

Technetium is essential for medical imaging, yet supplies of this short-lived manmade element are far from guaranteed. We see a technetium scan in progress and a cow being milked, and hear the yarn of the 70-year chemistry wild goose chase sparked by...Show More

Fluorine (F)

42:31 | Mar 4th, 2015

Itself a ferocious yellow gas, fluorine is also the key building block for a string of other gases that pose a threat to mankind - from the ozone-depleting CFCs to potent greenhouse gases. We track fluorine from the mine to its incredible array of fi...Show More

Chromium (Cr)

33:15 | Feb 26th, 2015

Chromium is the metal of modernity - spawning icons from the Chrysler Building to the Harley Davidson. This colourful element is the key ingredient in stainless steel and leather. But the shiny metal also has a dark side - one brought to public atten...Show More

Nickel & Rhenium (Ni, Re)

34:00 | Feb 18th, 2015

Nickel is the metal that made the jet age possible, not to mention margarine and bicycle sprockets. We visit Rolls Royce to discover the incredible materials science that this chemical element and its super-alloys have driven.

Uranium (U)

41:11 | Oct 8th, 2014

Uranium is the fuel for nuclear power stations, which generate carbon-free electricity, but also radioactive waste that lasts a millennium. In the latest in our series looking at the world economy from the perspective of the elements of the periodic ...Show More

Lead (Pb)

38:19 | Oct 1st, 2014

Lead is the sweetest of poisons, blamed for everything from mad Roman emperors to modern-day crime waves. Yet a lead-acid battery is still what gets your car going in the morning. So have we finally learnt how to handle this heavyweight element? Just...Show More

Caesium (Cs)

38:04 | Sep 24th, 2014

The atomic clock runs on caesium, and has redefined the very meaning of time. But it has also introduced a bug into timekeeping that affects everything from computerised financial markets to electricity grids, and satellite navigation to the Greenwic...Show More

Bromine (Br)

28:58 | Sep 17th, 2014

Bromine puts out fires - both in the home and in the heart. But despite its reputation as an anti-aphrodisiac, this chemical element's biggest use is in fire retardants, found in everything from your sofa to your radio. But do these bromine-based che...Show More

Plutonium (Pu)

37:36 | Sep 11th, 2014

Plutonium is one of a family of highly radioactive "synthetic" elements cooked up in nuclear reactors. But does it and its kin have any practical application besides the atom bomb? We travel to plutonium's sunny birthplace to find out. (Picture: Nuc...Show More

Silicon (Si) - solar

38:27 | Aug 18th, 2014

Already responsible for the IT revolution, could silicon be about to pull off an energy revolution too? We hear from pioneer John Schaeffer about solar power's hippy roots, and Richard Swanson of Sun Power explains why it may be on course to become t...Show More

Silicon (Si) - chips

39:38 | Jul 31st, 2014

Silicon is synonymous with the computer revolution. We travel to its eponymous birthplace - Silicon Valley in California - to ask chip pioneers Intel why this chemical element has supported a billion-fold increase in computing power, and whether the ...Show More

Sulphur (S)

34:17 | Jul 30th, 2014

Sulphur is in abundant supply thanks to its extraction from sour oil and gas, in order to prevent acid rain pollution. But does the world face a glut of this devilish chemical element, famed for its colour and odour? And if so, what uses can it be pu...Show More

Tungsten (W)

34:31 | Jul 29th, 2014

Tungsten is one of the hardest, heaviest and highest melting metals, used in everything from bulbs to bullets, x-rays to drill bits. Justin Rowlatt hears from the perennial Professor Andrea Sella of University College London about the properties of w...Show More

Vanadium (V)

28:29 | Jul 28th, 2014

Traditionally used as a magic ingredient to produce tougher, more wear-resistant steels, vanadium has discovered a surprising new calling in life. Could this neglected metal, and the gigantic batteries it produces, provide the perfect counterpart for...Show More

Nitrogen (N) - fertilisers

33:27 | Jul 27th, 2014

Nitrogen is a crucial ingredient in fertilisers. And thanks to a pair of clever Germans, the Haber-Bosch process of fixing nitrogen from the air ensures that the planet's burgeoning population can still feed itself. But does it also threaten the plan...Show More

Nitrogen (N) - explosives

35:41 | Jul 26th, 2014

Some 78% of the Earth's atmosphere is nitrogen. Yet this seemingly inert gas is the key component of bombs and explosives. It has brought life and death on an epic scale since mankind first unlocked its potential a century ago. And it has brought tra...Show More

Carbon (C) - plastics

34:48 | Jul 25th, 2014

Polymers – or plastics – are enduring, cheap, mouldable and versatile. Yet their very durability mean they litter our landscapes. And their main raw material - crude oil - will not last forever. So could the future be to use nature - with a little tw...Show More

Sodium (Na)

32:38 | Jul 24th, 2014

What links soap, paper, heart disease and murder? Sodium. In the latest in our series of programmes looking at the world economy from the perspective of the elements of the periodic table, Justin Rowlatt returns to the chlor-alkali plant of Industria...Show More

Chlorine (Cl)

33:16 | Jul 23rd, 2014

Chlorine is more than just a chemical used in swimming pools. This poisonous green gas is the great enabling element of the chemicals industry, used in creating your clothes, computer chips, medicines and flooring. Justin Rowlatt travels to Thurrock ...Show More

Lithium (Li)

32:48 | Jul 22nd, 2014

Lithium is the electro-chemical element - big in batteries and bipolar disorder. Over two decades it has shot from obscurity to become almost synonymous with the way we power our gadgets. Presenter Justin Rowlatt hears from chemistry powerhouse profe...Show More

Rare Earth Elements (Ce, Nd, Dy, Er, etc)

32:31 | Jul 21st, 2014

Neither rare nor earths, these 17 elements are nonetheless difficult and unpleasant to mine and refine. Chemically near-identical, these metals have unique magnetic and optical properties, making them essential in modern technology from fibre optics ...Show More

Carbon (C) - diamonds

31:26 | Jul 20th, 2014

Diamonds are not forever. They can be burned, and these days they can be mass-produced in a factory. So can your jeweller tell the difference between a natural and chemically identical "fake"? And can the new breed of cheap, pure, manmade rocks be pu...Show More

Calcium (Ca)

27:02 | Jul 19th, 2014

Calcium is the great structural element. It is the basis of much of the great architecture in nature as well as many of the incredible structures made by man. Presenter Justin Rowlatt hears from chemistry supremo Andrea Sella at the Royal Institution...Show More

Tin (Sn)

31:52 | Jul 18th, 2014

Tin may seem old-fashioned, but it plays some surprisingly important roles in the modern economy. Presenter Justin Rowlatt meets our favourite chemist Andrea Sella of UCL at Pewters' Hall in London to discover the unique properties of the metal that ...Show More

Carbon (C) - materials

27:56 | Jul 17th, 2014

We all know carbon's role in global warming, but could element 6 also provide some solutions? Carbon fibre composites are making planes more fuel efficient, as Airbus explains. And wonder-material graphene has opened up a new world of applications, f...Show More

Carbon (C) - energy

26:00 | Jul 16th, 2014

Carbon is a great energy store – in plants and animals, but also as hydrocarbons – coal, oil and natural gas. From the Industrial Revolution onwards, burning these fossil fuels has released vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the air, affecting ou...Show More

Gold (Au)

23:28 | Jul 15th, 2014

Heavy and chemically inert, why is gold, of all the elements of the periodic table, so highly valued by mankind? Does it even provide a sound basis for modern currencies? What is it actually useful for? And, given its value, what extraordinary length...Show More

Mercury (Hg)

23:29 | Jul 14th, 2014

Mercury is beautiful, yet deadly poisonous. Known as quicksilver, the Minamata international treaty aims to phase its use out completely. But how will the ban on element 80 affect artisanal gold miners? Or coal-fired power stations? And why does so m...Show More

Aluminium (Al)

27:43 | Jul 13th, 2014

Light, strong and flexible, aluminium is used in drinks cans, window frames, aircraft and packaging. Ubiqitous today, why was it valued more highly than gold 150 years ago? Is it better to recycle this metal, or spend vast amounts of energy creating ...Show More

Helium (He)

23:35 | Jul 12th, 2014

The second most abundant element in the universe, helium is rare on Earth. In liquid form it is used as a coolant in super conducting magnets in MRI scanners – so should this rare element be used in something as frivolous as party balloons? And what ...Show More

Phosphorus (P)

20:00 | Jul 11th, 2014

Phosphorus is essential for life. Our crops would not grow without phosphate fertiliser. So should we worry that we may be frittering the stuff away? Or that most of the world's remaining reserves are controlled by one country? Or that our phosphorus...Show More

The Elements and the Economy

26:29 | Feb 8th, 2014

The periodic table provides an entirely new perspective on how the global economy works, as we discover in the first part of a new series about the chemical elements. A mining engineer working with Rio Tinto explains the geological processes that...Show More