Note: This article, originally published in 1998, was updated in 2006 for the eBook edition.
Rhenium was discovered by a German research team that included Walter Noddack (1893-1960), Ida Tacke (1896-1979) and Otto Berg. These scientists knew that there were two empty boxes in the periodic table that represented elements that had not yet been discovered. The periodic table is a chart that shows how chemical elements are related to one another. In 1925, the German team announced that they had found both elements. They were correct about one (element number 75) but wrong about the other (element number 43).
Rhenium is one of the rarest elements in the world. At one time it sold for about $10,000,000 a kilogram (about $5,000,000 a pound). It is no longer that expensive, although it is still very costly.
Rhenium has some unusual properties. For example, it is one of the most dense elements known. It also has one of the highest boiling points of all elements.
Group 7 (VIIB)
The primary uses of rhenium are in alloys that are used at very high temperatures or exposed to a great deal of wear.
Discovery and naming
At the beginning of the 1920s, chemists knew they were approaching a milestone. They had already isolated 87 chemical elements. But they knew that five more were waiting to be discovered. How did they know? Every element has a space in the periodic table. An empty space meant that an element was missing. In 1920, five empty spaces were still left in the periodic table.
Chemists worldwide were searching for these five elements. In 1925, Noddack, Tacke, and Berg reported that they had found two of those elements: numbers 43 and 75. They called the first element masurium, after the region called Masurenland in eastern Germany. They named element number 75 rhenium, after the Rhineland, in western Germany. Rhenium was the last naturally occurring element to be discovered.
When a discovery like this is announced, other chemists try to repeat the experiments. They see if they get the same results as those reported. In this case, the German team turned out to be half right. Scientists were able to confirm the existence of element 75. They were not able to confirm the Germans' discovery of element 43. In fact, it was another decade before element 43 (technetium) was actually discovered.
Rhenium is a ductile, malleable, silvery metal. Ductile means capable of being drawn into thin wires. Malleable means capable of being hammered into thin sheets. It has a density of 21.02 grams per cubic centimeter, a melting point of 3,180°C (5,760°F), and a boiling point of 5,630°C (10,170°F). These numbers are among the highest to be found for any of the chemical elements.
Rhenium is quite dense, which is unusual for a metal. When heated, most metals reach a point where they change from being ductile to being brittle. They can be worked with below that point, but not above it. Above this transition temperature they become brittle. If one tries to bend or shape them, they break apart. The unusual behavior of rhenium means that it can be heated and recycled many times without breaking apart.
Occurrence in nature
About a third of all rhenium used in the United States comes from copper and molybdenum ores in the Western states. It is obtained during the process of copper mining. Two-thirds are imported from other countries, primarily Chile, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The principal ores of rhenium are molybdenite, gadolinite, and columbite.
Rhenium is one of the rarest elements in the world. Its abundance is thought to be about one part per billion.
Two isotopes of rhenium occur in nature, rhenium-185 and rhenium-187. Isotopes are two or more forms of an element. Isotopes differ from each other according to their mass number. The number written to the right of the element's name is the mass number. The mass number represents the number of protons plus neutrons in the nucleus of an atom of the element. The number of protons determines the element, but the number of neutrons in the atom of any one element can vary. Each variation is an isotope.
Rhenium-187 is radioactive. A radioactive isotope is one that breaks apart and gives off some form of radiation. The half life of rhenium-187 is about 100,000,000 years. The half life of a radioactive element is the time it takes for half of a sample of the element to break down. For example, of a 100-gram sample of rhenium-187, only half that amount, or 50 grams, would be left after 100,000,000 years. The other 50 grams would have broken down and changed into another isotope.
Rhenium was the last naturally occurring element to be discovered.
Ores containing rhenium are first roasted, or heated in air, to convert them to rhenium oxide (ReO3).Hydrogen gas is then passed over the rhenium oxide. The hydrogen converts the rhenium oxide to the pure metal:
About three-quarters of all rhenium consumed in the United States are used in the manufacture of superalloys. A superalloy is an alloy made of iron, cobalt, or nickel. It has special properties, such as the ability to withstand high temperatures and attack by oxygen. Superalloys are widely used in making jet engine parts and gas turbine engines.
Alloys containing rhenium also have many other applications. They are used in making devices that control temperatures (like the thermostat in your home), heating elements (like those on an electric stove), vacuum tubes (like those in a television set), electromagnets, electrical contacts, metallic coatings, and thermocouples. A thermocouple is used like a thermometer for measuring very high temperatures.
About a quarter of the rhenium consumed in the United States is used as a catalyst in the petroleum industry. A catalyst is a substance used to speed up or slow down a chemical reaction without undergoing any change itself. Rhenium catalysts are used in the reactions by which natural petroleum is broken down into more useful fragments, such as gasoline, heating oil, and diesel oil.
Very few compounds of rhenium have any commercial applications.
Superalloys are widely used in making jet engine parts and gas turbine engines.
Complete studies on the health effects of rhenium are not available. For that reason, it should be assumed to be toxic and be handled with caution.
Rhenium was discovered in a sample of gadolinite in 1925 by Walter Noddack, Ida Tacke, and Otto Berg, and was named after the Rhine River. The concentration of rhenium in Earth's crust is on the order of 7 × 10−8 percent. Rhenium crystallizes in the hexagonal close-packed arrangement and resembles platinum in appearance. It is usually obtained as a gray powder. It has the second highest melting point (3,180°C, or 5,756°F) of any metal . Rhenium is used in conjunction with platinum in thermocouples (thermoelectric thermometers) and as a Pt/Re reforming catalyst in the petroleum industry. It is used as filaments in mass spectrometry and as furnace heater windings.
Rhenium can be prepared by the thermal decomposition of NH4ReO4 or (NH4)2ReCl6 in the presence of H2, and by electrodeposition of HReO4 from H2SO4 solutions. The metal is soluble in H2O2, concentrated HNO3, hot H2SO4, and warm Br2 water, but is not soluble in concentrated HF and
IDA TACKE (1896–1979)
Working with her husband and using x rays, Ida Tacke discovered element number 75, rhenium. Her birthplace, next to the Rhine River, inspired its name. Tacke is also known for predicting nuclear fission prior to its realization, although she principally studied the chemistry of light in the human eye.
HCl. It reacts in air above 400°C (752°F) to give Re2O7. It has the widest range of valences of any element. Dissolution of Re2O7 in H2O yields Re2O3, ReO2, Re2O5, ReO3, and the strong acid HReO4. With sulfur it forms Re2S7, which decomposes into ReS2 and pure sulfur upon heating. It forms halides of stoichiometry ReXn , where n = 2 to 7 for F, 3 to 6 for Cl, 3 to 5 for Br, and 2 to 4 for I. Rhenium forms coordination compounds with alkyl, aryl, carbonyl, dinitrogen, hydrido, isocyanide, nitrido, and nitrosyl ligands , and with other ligands containing nitrogen, phosphorus, oxygen, and sulfur donors. Octahedral complexes with mixed ligands are numerous; for example, [Re(bpy)(CO)3(py)]=, where bpy is 2,2′-bipyridine and py is pyridine.
D. Paul Rillema
Cotton, F. Albert, and Wilkinson, Geoffrey (1988). Advanced Inorganic Chemistry, 5th edition. New York: Wiley.
Greenwood, N. N., and Earnshaw, A. (1984). Chemistry of the Elements. New York: Pergamon Press.
rhenium (rē´nēəm), metallic chemical element; symbol Re; at. no. 75; at. wt. 186.207; m.p. about 3,180°C; b.p. about 5,625°C; sp. gr. 21.02 at 20°C; valence -1, +2, +3, +4, +5, +6, or +7. Rhenium is a very dense, high-melting, silver-white metal. Of the elements, only carbon and tungsten have higher melting points and only iridium, osmium, and platinum are more dense. The chemical properties of rhenium are like those of technetium, the element above it in Group 7 of the periodic table. A number of rhenium compounds are known, among them halides, oxides, and sulfides. The heptavalent oxide, Re2O7, on dissolving in water forms perrhenic acid, HReO4, from which many other compounds are prepared. Rhenium is not found uncombined in nature. It is widely distributed in the earth's crust in platinum and molybdenum ores and in many minerals, but is not abundant. In the United States rhenium is obtained commercially as a byproduct of the roasting of copper sulfide ores from Arizona and Utah. Rhenium metal is obtained as a powder by reduction of its compounds with hydrogen. The powder is compacted, sintered, annealed, and formed into wire, foil, rods, or strips. Rhenium is used in alloys with tungsten; it gives improved ductility and high-temperature strength. These alloys are used for electrical contacts, electronic filaments, and thermocouples and in photographic flash lamps. Rhenium forms a superconductive alloy with molybdenum. Rhenium is used as a catalyst for hydrogenation and petroleum cracking. Based on his periodic law, Mendeleev predicted the existence of rhenium, which he called dvi-manganese. The accuracy of prediction of the properties of the element led to its discovery in 1925 by Walter Nodack, Ida Tacke, and Otto Berg in platinum ores and the mineral columbite.
rhe·ni·um / ˈrēnēəm/ • n. the chemical element of atomic number 75, a rare silvery-white metal that occurs in trace amounts in ores of molybdenum and other metals. (Symbol: Re)
Re 1 / rā/ variant spelling of Ra1 . Re2 • symb. the chemical element rhenium.
Re (chemical symbol)
Re, symbol for the element rhenium.