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Have you used a sink or flushed a toilet today? Did you have something M'm! M'm! Good! for lunch? Right now you're viewing this Cool Science Image on a computer. Did you know that humble tin (Sn on the periodic table) makes it all possible?
About 31 percent of world tin production, the largest single use for tin, goes for solder alloys with tin-lead alloys the most commonly used for electronics: computers, clock radios, cell phones. Soldering creates a long-lasting joint and provides an electrically conductive path between two metal surfaces, keeping all the parts in place and enabling electronic pulses to get from here to there. Yep, it's simple but vital to our modern lives.
Tin-plated steel (tinplate), which accounts for about a third of tin production, goes for food and beverage packaging. If all of the tinplate coil used in the world each year for making cans were to be unrolled, it would reach all the way to the moon! By preventing the acids and moisture in foods from corroding the other metals in the can, you get rust-free fruit cocktail.
Tin does more than join wires and coat cans; chemical compounds based on tin are the most effective additives for heat stability in the production of plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a widely-used, low-cost material with good physical, mechanical and fire-retardant properties. PVC piping is used widely in modern construction for both potable (drinkable) and non-potable (waste--definitely not drinkable) water. And if you live in an older house with steel piping, tin's in the solder that joins the pipes.
This colorized micrograph of tin spheres was obtained using ISAAC, a system developed by National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and two industrial partners that substantially increases the detail provided in scanning electron micrograph (SEM) images.