You are here: Home page > Materials > Tin
Advertisement

Cornish tin mine on a gorse-covered hillside.

Tin

by Chris Woodford. Last updated: January 15, 2014.

Have you ever been to Cornwall, that romantic coastal county in the southwest of England? If so, you've probably seen the remains of tin-mine smokestacks poking up from the landscape. Cornwall was one of the world's leading tin producers until the world market collapsed in the mid-1980s, largely due to the switch from using tin in food cans and packages to alternatives such as aluminum and plastics. Despite this, tin remains an important metal in many other products and industrial processes, from welding and soldering to coating roofs and making insecticides. Let's take a closer look!

Photo: A ruined tin mine in Cornwall, England. After the last Cornish tin mine closed in 1998, the industry is now just a romantic memory. Photo by courtesy of Strange Ones, published on Flickr in 2008 under a Creative Commons licence.

What is tin?

Two marines put a tin roof on a school house.

Tin is a silvery white metal that lives in group IV of the periodic table of chemical elements. To look at it, you'd never know that it was (according to archeologists) one of the earliest and most important metals in human history!

It was the discovery of how tin and copper could be combined in an alloy called bronze (a much stronger material than either metal alone) that ushered in one of the major eras of civilization: the Bronze Age. The earliest evidence we have of people using tin is in bronze finds from 3000–3500BCE, though it was apparently not widely used as a pure metal until several thousand years later (probably c.600BCE).

Photo: Cats on a hot tin roof. Two US Marine Corps engineers put a new tin roof on a school in Kenya. Photo by CPL Bryant V courtesy of Defense Imagery.

Where does tin come from?

Although we think of tin as an everyday material, it's actually much less common than comparable metals such as copper or zinc (according to the US Geological Survey, copper is over 30 times and zinc about 50 times more common than tin). In terms of abundance, tin is roughly halfway down the list of chemical elements: the 49th most common in Earth's rocky crust, existing in concentrations of about 2 parts per million (0.0002 percent). In other words, if you dig up a tonne of rock, a measly 2 grams of it will be tin!

Satellite view of Australian tin mine by NASA.

Photo: A satellite photo of a tin mine in New South Wales, Australia taken from the International Space Station. Photo by courtesy of NASA Johnson Space Center – Earth Sciences and Image Analysis (NASA-JSC-ES&IA).

There are tin deposits right across the world, though most tin now comes from the southern hemisphere—and chiefly from south-east Asia. The most important producer countries are now China, Indonesia, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. England (Cornwall) is no longer the important producer it once was and the United States, despite being the world's biggest consumer of tin, has not (according to the US Geological Survey) mined any of the metal since 1993.

Pie chart showing which countries mine the world's tin.

Most tin is produced from an ore (raw rocky mineral) called cassiterite, which is turned into tin by smelting. First, the ore is crushed to a powder and washed free of impurities before being heated with carbon (in the form of coal) and limestone in a giant furnace. Other metals, such as iron, copper and zinc, separate out. Molten tin sinks to the bottom of the furnace and is shaped into solid blocks known as ingots. Like most other metals, tin can also be separated or purified using electrolysis (an electrical-chemical process that works in the opposite way to a battery).

World mine production of tin, 2011. Five countries (China, Indonesia, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, and Congo [Kinshasha]) mine about 90 percent of the world's tin. Source: USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries: Tin, January 2012.

What is tin like?

There are two common forms (allotropes) of tin that look and behave differently because of their quite different internal crystalline structures. One is the familiar, silvery-white form called white tin or beta tin, which has a body-centered tetragonal structure and predominates at everyday temperatures. The other form, gray tin or alpha tin, is powdery, about two thirds as dense, and appears spontaneously at low temperatures. It's less useful because it's weaker and more brittle, with a face-centered cubic crystalline structure. The sudden degradation of white tin into gray tin is called tin pest.

Low-temperature oxidation catalyst produced by NASA in 1995.

Photo: This low-temperature oxidation catalyst made from tin oxide and platinum is designed to convert carbon monoxide to less harmful carbon dioxide. Photo by CPL Bryant V courtesy of NASA Langley Research Center (NASA-LaRC).

Physical properties

Tin is a typical metal inasmuch as it's extremely malleable (easy to work in many different ways), ductile (easy to draw into wires), and readily forms a grayish protective oxide on its surface, but it's much weaker than metals such as iron so it's not used as a construction material. It has a relatively low melting point (one of the reasons it's used as a component of solder), but a relatively high boiling point, which means it's a liquid over a wide range of temperatures and can be usefully employed as such in a number of industrial processes.

Chemical properties

Tin has a valency (chemical combining power) of either two (II) or four (IV) and accordingly forms two different forms of compounds: tin (II) compounds (which used to be called stannous) and tin (IV) compounds (formerly called stannic). Notable tin compounds include tin (II) chloride used in galvanizing, dyeing, and perfume production; tin (II) fluoride, which provides the fluoride in some toothpastes; and tin (IV) oxide, an industrial catalyst. Compounds of carbon and tin include a number of important insecticides and disinfectants.

Key data

Photo of toothpaste being squeezed onto a toothbrush.

Photo: Tin surprise! Did you know that tin (II) fluoride puts the fluoride in toothpastes?

What do we use tin for?

Pie chart showing how tin is used in the United States.

Tin plating was—and remains—the most important use of tin. It involves applying a very thin protective coating of tin to other materials, such as steel and copper, either by dipping them into molten tin or by electroplating. The dull, tin oxide that forms on the surface of the tin plate protects both the tin and the material it covers up. In the early decades of the 20th century, most food cans were handmade this way and sealed up by soldering. The tin rustproofed the steel cans and protected them from acidic foods, and some tins cans also had an enamel coating inside to protect the food from reacting with them. Now, plastic, board, and composite containers and aluminum cans often do the job instead. Tin is also used to rustproof such things as paperclips, hair grips, and safety pins. Apart from tin plate, the next most important use for tin is the production of many different alloys, including bronze, solders of various kinds, babbitt metal, and pewter.

Chart: Tin use in the United States in 2011. The US no longer mines or smelts any of the tin it uses. Roughly half of US tin comes from Peru, with much of the rest coming from Bolivia, China, and Indonesia. Source: USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries: Tin, January 2012.

Find out more

On this website

On other sites

Books

For older readers

For younger readers

Sponsored links

Please do NOT copy our articles onto blogs and other websites

Text copyright © Chris Woodford 2009. All rights reserved. Full copyright notice and terms of use.

Follow us

Rate this page

Please rate or give feedback on this page and I will make a donation to WaterAid.

Share this page

Press CTRL + D to bookmark this page for later or tell your friends about it with:

Cite this page

Woodford, Chris. (2009) Tin. Retrieved from http://www.explainthatstuff.com/tin.html. [Accessed (Insert date here)]

More to explore on our website...

Back to top