Eating Metal – Not Just for Rust Anymore

Posted on July 15, 2013

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Buglike bots—“construction mites”—go out of control and start munching and mulching every hard metal in their path, taking down titanium walls. Sound like fiction? Yep, it is: a recent plot point in a Eureka episode. But what about eating up metals in everyday life?

By seventh grade, most kids have done the penny-in-soda-overnight experiment. Soda pop corrodes the patootle out of pennies, a warning to what might happen to your poor teeth. That soda is no better on our teeth than the penny—but kids don’t want to eat metal to find out! And who would?

Good question. Let’s examine a few things in the world that dowant to eat metal.

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SALT: Panic in Detroit

How can something as foundational as salt—something we eat an awful lot of, and that our bodies need—make mincemeat out of iron and steel? Salt spray from snowy Midwest roads is an electrolyte, a.k.a. a form of public transportation for electrons from anode materials to oxygen molecules. This process is called oxidation. In this case, the anode material is steel, and after it sends its electrons off on the electrolyte bus, the steel is transformed into rusty metal cations. Then you can say goodbye to the wheel wells on your car.

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BILLY GOATS: Blame it on pica

Many people think that billy goats have the freakiest eyes of any animal currently roaming the planet. I agree. They also believe goats to possess the scariest diet, even eating tin cans. Poppycock! That’s just an urban legend. However, if a goat has a condition called pica, which could be caused by a mineral deficiency, it may get a strong unnatural craving for a delectable tin can. Pica affects humans, too, making them eat all kinds of weird non-foodstuffs, particularly metals.

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BACTERIA: Halomonas titanicae

Iron statues don’t typically turn to gold without some kind of external interaction, but Eureka’s iron statue of Pythagoras seemed to do just that in season two’s “All That Glitters.” The statue turned to gold and then corroded completely, eventually turning to dust. It turned out that Eureka’s issue was caused by a bacterium that turned all metal in its path into gold before consuming the object (then it targeted our town’s citizens, but that’s another blog post altogether).

Halomonas titanicae is a bacteria that was recently discovered on the shipwrecked Titanic. Not blamed for the failure of the Titanic back in the day, today the bacteria is expected to completely consume the remaining shipwreck, reducing it to a memory.

And there you go: Further proof that life is just as bizarre as science fiction.

Kiped from the archives of the SyFy channel’s IdeaLab Blog for the TV show Eureka. Well kinda kiped, since I wrote it to begin with. Edited by Tiffany Lee Brown, without whom I’d be stuck in the land of curly quotes.

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Posted in: science, writing