calcium (kălˈsēəm) [key] [Lat., = lime], metallic chemical element; symbol Ca; at. no. 20; at. wt. 40.078; m.p. about 839°C; b.p. 1,484°C; sp. gr. 1.55 at 20°C; valence +2. Calcium is a malleable, ductile, silver-white, relatively soft metal with face-centered, cubic crystalline structure. Chemically it resembles strontium and barium; it is classed with them as an alkaline-earth metal in Group 2 of the periodic table. Calcium is chemically active; it tarnishes rapidly when exposed to air and burns with a bright yellow-red flame when heated, mainly forming the nitride. It reacts directly with water, forming the hydroxide. It combines with other elements, e.g., with oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, chlorine, fluorine, arsenic, phosphorus, and sulfur, forming many compounds.
Although lime (calcium oxide) has been known since ancient times, elemental calcium was first isolated by Sir Humphry Davy in 1808. Today, calcium metal is usually prepared by electrolysis of fused calcium chloride to which a little calcium fluoride has been added. It is used in alloys with other metals, such as aluminum, lead, or copper; in preparation of other metals, such as thorium and uranium, by reduction; and (like barium) in the manufacture of vacuum tubes to remove residual gases.
The metal is of little commercial importance compared to its compounds, which are widely and diversely used. The element is a constituent of lime (see calcium oxide), chloride of lime (bleaching powder), mortar, plaster, cement (see cement, concrete, whiting, putty, precipitated chalk, gypsum, and plaster of Paris. Tremolite, a form of asbestos, is a naturally occurring compound of calcium, magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. Calcium carbide reacts with water to form acetylene gas; it is also used to prepare calcium cyanamide, which is used as a fertilizer. The phosphate is a major constituent of bone ash. The arsenate and the cyanide are used as insecticides. Calcium bicarbonate causes temporary hardness in water; calcium sulfate causes permanent hardness. Generally, calcium compounds show an orange or yellow-red color when held in the Bunsen burner flame.
Although calcium is the fifth most abundant element in the earth's crust, of which it constitutes about 3.6%, it is not found uncombined. It is found widely distributed in its compounds, e.g., Iceland spar, marble, limestone, feldspar, apatite, calcite, dolomite, fluorite, garnet, and labradorite. It is a constituent of most plant and animal matter.
Calcium is essential to the formation and maintenance of strong bones and teeth; the recommended daily dietary allowance for all but young children ranges from 1,000 to 1,300 milligrams. In the human adult the bone calcium is chiefly in the form of the phosphate and carbonate salts. A sufficient store of vitamin D (see under vitamin) in the body is necessary for the proper utilization of calcium. Calcium also functions in the regulation of the heartbeat and in the conversion of prothrombin to thrombin, a necessary step in the clotting of blood.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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