Strontium: the essentials

Strontium does not occur as the free element. Strontium is softer than calcium and decomposes water more vigorously. Freshly cut strontium has a silvery appearance, but rapidly turns a yellowish colour with the formation of the oxide. The finely divided metal ignites spontaneously in air. Volatile strontium salts impart an excellent crimson colour to flames, and these salts are used in pyrotechnics.

The result of adding different metal salts to a burning reaction mixture of potassium chlorate and sucrose. The red colour originates from strontium sulphate. The orange/yellow colour originates from sodium chloride. The green colour originates from barium chlorate and the blue colour originates from copper (I) chloride. The lilac colour that should be evident from the potassium chlorate is washed out by the other colours, all of which are more intense (only to be demonstrated by a professionally qualified chemist following a legally satisfactory hazard asessment). Improperly done, this reaction is dangerous!

The picture shows the colour arising from adding strontium sulphate salt to a burning mixture of potassium chlorate and sucrose.

The picture above shows the colour arising from adding strontium sulphate salt (SrSO4) to a burning mixture of potassium chlorate and sucrose. Do not attempt this reaction unless are a professionally qualified chemist and you have carried out a legally satisfactory hazard assessment.

Strontium-90 (90Sr) has a half-life of 28 years. It is a product of nuclear fallout and presents a major health problem. Strontium titanate is an interesting optical material as it has an extremely high refractive index and an optical dispersion greater than that of diamond. It has been used as a gemstone, but it is very soft.

Table: basic information about and classifications of strontium.

Strontium: historical information

Strontium was discovered by Adair Crawford at 1790 in Scotland. Origin of name: named after the village of "Strontian" in Scotland.

Adair Crawford in 1790 recognized a new mineral (strontianite) in samples of witherite (a mineral consisting of barium carbonate, BaCO3) from Scotland. It was some time before it was recognised that strontianite contained a new element. Strontianite is now known to consists of strontium carbonate, SrCO3. The element itself was not isolated for a number of years after this when strontium metal was isolated by Davy by electrolysis of a mixture containing strontium chloride and mercuric oxide in 1808.

Sometime prior to the autumn of 1803, the Englishman John Dalton was able to explain the results of some of his studies by assuming that matter is composed of atoms and that all samples of any given compound consist of the same combination of these atoms. Dalton also noted that in series of compounds, the ratios of the masses of the second element that combine with a given weight of the first element can be reduced to small whole numbers (the law of multiple proportions). This was further evidence for atoms. Dalton's theory of atoms was published by Thomas Thomson in the 3rd edition of his System of Chemistry in 1807 and in a paper about strontium oxalates published in the Philosophical Transactions. Dalton published these ideas himself in the following year in the New System of Chemical Philosophy. The symbol used by Dalton for strontium is shown below. [See History of Chemistry, Sir Edward Thorpe, volume 1, Watts & Co, London, 1914.]

Dalton's symbol for strontium

Strontium: physical properties

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Strontium: orbital properties

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Isolation: strontium metal is available commercially and there is no need to make it in the laboratory. Commercially it is made on small scale by the electrolysis of molten strontium chloride, SrCl2.

cathode: Sr2+(l) + 2e- → Sr

anode: Cl-(l) → 1/2Cl2 (g) + e-

Strontium metal can also be islated from the reduction of strontium oxide, SrO, with aluminium.

6SrO + 2Al → 3Sr + Sr3Al2O6

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