Lead is a dense, soft, low-melting metal. It is an important component of batteries, and about 75% of the world's lead production is consumed by the battery industry. Lead is the densest common metal except for gold, and this quality makes it effective in sound barriers and as a shield against X-rays. Lead resists corrosion by water, so it has long been used in the plumbing industry. It is also added to paints, and it makes a long-lasting roofing material.
Lead is a health hazard to humans if it is inhaled or ingested, interfering with the production of red blood cells. Its use must be carefully controlled, and several formerly common uses of lead are now restricted by the U.S. government. Lead paint is found in many older buildings, but it is now mostly used on outdoor steel structures such as bridges, to improve their weatherability. A lead compound called tetraethyl lead was added to gasoline as early as 1921 because it prevented the "knocking" problem of high-compression automobile engines. However, most gasoline now contains no lead, because lead from car exhaust was a major source of air pollution.
Lead is also commonly used in glass and enamel. In television picture tubes and computer video display terminals, lead helps block radiation, and the inner, though not the outer, portion of the common light bulb is made of leaded glass. Lead also increases the strength and brilliance of crystal glassware. Lead is used to make bearings and solder, and it is important in rubber production and oil refining.
Lead production dates back at least 8,000 years. Lead was used in Egypt as early as 5,000 B.C. , and in the time of the Pharaohs it was used in pottery glazes and as solder. It was also cast into ornamental objects. A white lead paint was also used in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Ancient Rome used lead pipes for its extensive water works. Some of the toxic effects of lead were also noted as early as the Roman era, though lead was also thought to have positive medical qualities. In the 15th and 16th centuries, builders used lead as a roofing material for cathedrals, and lead was also used to hold together the different panels of colored glass in stained glass windows. The first lead battery is credited to a French physicist, Gaston Plante, who invented it in 1859. By 1889, so-called lead-acid storage batteries of the modern type were being commercially produced.
Modern lead mines produce about 3 million metric tons of lead annually. This is only about half the lead used worldwide; the remainder is obtained by recycling. The top producer of lead is Australia, followed by the United States, China, and Canada. Other countries with major lead deposits are Mexico, Peru, Russia, and Kazakhstan.
Lead is extracted from ores dug from under-ground mines. More than 60 minerals contain some form of lead, but only three are usually mined for lead production. The most common is called galena. The pure form of galena contains only lead and sulfur, but it is usually found with traces of other metals in it, including silver, copper, zinc, cadmium, and antimony as well as arsenic. Two other
Besides the ore itself, only a few raw materials are necessary for the refining of lead. The ore concentrating process requires pine oil, alum, lime, and xanthate. Limestone or iron ore is added to the lead ore during the roasting process. Coke, a coal distillate, is used to further heat the ore.
Lead refining produces several byproducts. The gangue, or waste rock, accumulates as the ore is concentrated. Most of the minerals have been removed from the rock, so this waste is not considered by the industry to be an environmental hazard. It can be pumped into a disposal pond, which resembles a natural lake. Sulfuric acid is the major byproduct of the smelting process. Sulfur dioxide gas is released when the ore is roasted at the sinter plant. To protect the atmosphere, fumes and smoke are captured, and the air released by the plant is first cleaned. The sulfur dioxide is collected at a separate acid plant, and converted to sulfuric acid. The refinery can sell this acid as well as its primary product, the lead itself.
Air pollution can result from lead processing as well. The smelter requires a "bag house," that is, a separate facility to filter and vacuum the fumes so that lead is not released into the atmosphere. Nevertheless, lead particles do reach the atmosphere, and in the United States, federal regulations attempt to control how much is allowable. Most of the solid waste product produced by the smelting process is a dense, glassy substance called slag. This contains traces of lead as well as zinc and copper. The slag is more toxic than the gangue, and it must be stored securely and monitored so that it does not escape into the environment or come in contact with populations.
New developments in the lead industry seem aimed less at improvements in the manufacturing process than towards finding new uses for the lead itself. Since a large proportion of the lead mined and recycled is sold to the automotive industry for batteries, lead producers are quite dependent on the health of the auto industry. But lead producers are interested in finding new applications for lead to give them more market stability.
One recent new application for lead is a lead-fiberglass laminate. Lead sheeting can be laminated between gypsum and fiberglass, forming a superior duct material that helps isolate noise. If this is used in an air conditioning unit, for example, it effectively dampens the din of the machine. Another prospective market for lead is in nuclear waste containment. Safely storing radioactive material is a growing concern around the world. The lead industry is researching canisters made of titanium with an inner layer of lead or lead and plastic, contending that a one-inch layer of lead could add 880 years to the life of a properly buried container. And looking to the cars of the future, researchers in the U.S. and several other countries have been studying ways of improving lead-acid battery technology in order to power electric cars.
Goodwin, Frank E. and Dodd S. Carr. "Brilliant Performer." Natural Science, July 1989, pp. 317-23.
King, Angela. "Producers Hunt New Lead Uses." American Metal Market. April 11, 1988, pp. 10-13.
Knights, Mikell. "Higher Auto Output Boosts Lead, Zinc Use." American Metal Market, August 6, 1993, pp. 5-12.
Schmitt, Bill. "Lead, Zinc Vie for Place in Future Electric Cars." American Metal Market, August 6, 1993, p.6.
— Angela Woodward