Cobalt is a metal rarely found in pure form. When pure, it is hard and rigid but breaks easily, with a grey and matte appearance. Cobalt is an important industrial element and it is used in both its metallic form and to produce salts and various isotopes. Besides it many industrial uses, it is also needed by the human body in low amounts, being one of the so-called trace elements. It is not used in pure form industrially but is part of many types of alloys.
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In the periodic table of elements, cobalt has the symbol Co and the atomic number 27. The name has an interesting story, derived from a German word that means "goblin". Since cobalt can be confused with some silver ores, the story was that goblins used it to replace them. Another reason for the goblin association is that cobalt is often found in minerals with arsenic, which is a very toxic metal. Smelting arsenic produced poisonous fumes that could kill factory workers.
Besides its importance in human nutrition as a trace mineral, cobalt is also part of vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin. It is also important in the production of thyroxine, a thyroid hormone, where it acts as a cofactor. We need small amounts of cobalt as part of the structure of vitamin B12 but also in pure form. It plays a small role in the operation of all cells in our body but it was only recently discovered that cobalt is needed for the production of hemoglobin and other blood cells. In trace amounts, it has numerous functions, many of which are not fully understood yet. It seems to be involved in the production of proteins, as well as the activation of folate. Another key role of cobalt is in the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats.
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Cobalt salts are used to produce a blue dye, which is one of the most important industrial uses of this metal. The salts have been used as dye from ancient times and have been discovered in Greek and Egyptian tombs. The metal is useful in many alloys, in order to create materials able to resist very high temperatures or magnets. Alloys with a very high melting point have many applications, for example in the production of jet engines. Radioactive isotopes of cobalt are also widely used, not only in industry but also in research or medicine.
In nature, cobalt is usually found alongside ores of lead, nickel, silver or copper. It is never found in pure form but mixed with other elements, so refining is required to separate it. It is one of the ferromagnetic metals and can gain a long-term magnetic charge, sometimes spontaneously. For this reason, it is used in alloys in the production of the so-called rare earth magnets.
Since cobalt is needed to produce red blood cells, a lack of it can have serious consequences and cause macrocytic anemia. Other symptoms of an improper supply of cobalt have also been reported, such as problems with the thyroid function or irregular breathing.
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The richest sources of cobalt are animal foods with a high protein content. It can be found in generous amounts in meat, organs such as liver or kidneys, fish and seafood like mussels, shellfish and oysters. This mineral is also found in milk and in low amounts in mushrooms. Most vegetal foods have no cobalt at all but there are a few exceptions with trace amounts: spinach, lettuce, figs, cabbage, turnips and some other legumes. For this reasons, many vegetarians have a lack of cobalt but this is not a problem for people on a normal diet.
Cobalt is closely linked with vitamin B12, one of the required vitamins for proper health. This vitamin is also known as cobalamin, which shows its link to the metal. Actually, cobalt is not only present in the chemical structure of vitamin B12, but it also helps the body use it properly. Like most compounds from the B vitamin complex, vitamin B12 has a direct influence on the health of the nervous system but it also regulates metabolic functions. The connection with this critical vitamin is probably the best known and most important health benefit of cobalt.
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Recent studies also hint that cobalt could be linked to vitamin C. Vitamin C is one of the most common vitamins and our body needs generous amounts of it. A lack of it leads to scurvy, a disease that causes many symptoms such as hair loss. Vitamin C is found in fruits, especially from the citrus family, as well as many green vegetables. The exact role played by cobalt in the assimilation of vitamin C is not understood yet but several studies are currently investigating it in detail.
Other new studies have identified previously unknown health benefits of cobalt. It seems to influence a part of the cardiological function and the related vascular tissues. While the cobalt provided by your diet can help you have a healthy cardiovascular system, keep in mind that constant exercise is equally critical for it. Scientists have identified precisely how cobalt helps with heart health. This mineral reduces the levels of a dangerous compound named homocysteine, which is a major cause of arteriosclerosis because it injures the walls of arteries.
Cobalt might also increase the absorption of iron, according to the opinion of some nutritionists. Since iron is one of the most important minerals for human health, this could be a significant role for cobalt.
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This mineral contributes to the repair of myelin sheath, the protective cover of our nerves. This sheath is tasked with the transmission of nerve impulses to all areas of the body. As a result, cobalt is useful as a counter for multiple sclerosis, a very dangerous disease that destroys this sheath.
Since cobalt is used to produce red blood cells, excessive consumption can lead to a an abnormally high number of them. This boosts the volume of blood and can lead to anemia. Other problems caused by a very high supply of cobalt have also been reported: damage to heart muscles and thyroid glands, as well as decreased male fertility. Like all nutrients, balance is key. Too much cobalt can be as bad for health as an insufficient supply.
The radioactive isotopes of this mineral are also dangerous and must be used only by qualified medical staff. They are used in many medical treatments but are usually strictly controlled, like most radioactive substances.