Magnesium is a chemical element with the symbol Mg and atomic number 12. It is a shiny gray solid which bears a close physical resemblance to the other five elements in the second column (group 2, or alkaline earth metals) of the periodic table: all group 2 elements have the same electron configuration in the outer electron shell and a similar crystal structure.
Magnesium occurs naturally only in combination with other elements, where it invariably has a +2 oxidation state. The free element (metal) can be produced artificially, and is highly reactive (though in the atmosphere, it is soon coated in a thin layer of oxide that partly inhibits reactivity – see passivation). The free metal burns with a characteristic brilliant-white light. The metal is now obtained mainly by electrolysis of magnesium salts obtained from brine, and is used primarily as a component in aluminium-magnesium alloys, sometimes called magnalium or magnelium. Magnesium is less dense than aluminium, and the alloy is prized for its combination of lightness and strength.
Pure polycrystalline magnesium is brittle and easily fractures along shear bands. It becomes much more ductile when alloyed with small amount of other metals, such as 1% aluminium. Ductility of polycrystalline magnesium can also be significantly improved by reducing its grain size to ca. 1 micron or less.
Organomagnesium compounds are widespread in organic chemistry. They are commonly found as Grignard reagents. Magnesium can react with haloalkanes to give Grignard reagents. Examples of Grignard reagents are phenylmagnesium bromide and ethylmagnesium bromide. The Grignard reagents function as a common nucleophile, attacking the electrophilic group such as the carbon atom that is present within the polar bond of a carbonyl group.
The presence of iron, nickel, copper, and cobalt strongly activates corrosion. In more than trace amounts, these metals precipitate as intermetallic compounds, and the precipitate locales function as active cathodic sites that reduce water, causing the loss of magnesium. Controlling the quantity of these metals improves corrosion resistance. Sufficient manganese overcomes the corrosive effects of iron. This requires precise control over composition, increasing costs. Adding a cathodic poison captures atomic hydrogen within the structure of a metal. This prevents the formation of free hydrogen gas, an essential factor of corrosive chemical processes. The addition of about one in three hundred parts arsenic reduces its corrosion rate in a salt solution by a factor of nearly ten.
Magnesium is the third-most-commonly-used structural metal, following iron and aluminium. The main applications of magnesium are, in order: aluminium alloys, die-casting (alloyed with zinc), removing sulfur in the production of iron and steel, and the production of titanium in the Kroll process. Magnesium is used in super-strong, lightweight materials and alloys. For example, when infused with silicon carbide nanoparticles, it has extremely high specific strength.
Magnesium metal and its alloys can be explosive hazards; they are highly flammable in their pure form when molten or in powder or ribbon form. Burning or molten magnesium reacts violently with water. When working with powdered magnesium, safety glasses with eye protection and UV filters (such as welders use) are employed because burning magnesium produces ultraviolet light that can permanently damage the retina of a human eye.
The important interaction between phosphate and magnesium ions makes magnesium essential to the basic nucleic acid chemistry of all cells of all known living organisms. More than 300 enzymes require magnesium ions for their catalytic action, including all enzymes using or synthesizing ATP and those that use other nucleotides to synthesize DNA and RNA. The ATP molecule is normally found in a chelate with a magnesium ion.