Why Fluorine Is a Useful Element
Fluorine is a very reactive element, and as such is often not seen in its elemental form. It is the 13th most common element in the Earth's crust. Most fluorine is used is in the form of a fluorine compound, which is made of fluorine and other atoms. Chances are that most of the products and uses that come to mind when you think of fluorine are in a compound form as opposed to elemental fluorine.
That isn't to say, of course, that elemental fluorine doesn't have its uses; often it is used as a catalyst for other reactions or to help certain processes work smoothly. It is also used in manufacturing for a variety of purposes, including the creation of specific isotopes or as an ingredient in compounds that will be used elsewhere.
To give you a better idea of exactly how useful fluorine is, consider the following uses for both elemental fluorine and fluorine compounds
Uses of Elemental Fluorine
One of the more common uses of elemental fluorine is in rocket fuels, where it works in a manner similar to oxygen and helps the other materials in the fuel to burn.
There are still some uses for elemental fluorine in manufacturing, however, and even more in the laboratory and chemistry fields. Fluorinated compounds are used to create isotopically fractionated uranium, an important step in uranium purification for use in power plants.
Uses of Fluorine Compounds
While the uses of elemental fluorine are limited, the uses of fluorinated compounds are practically limitless. Fluorinated compounds can be used to create a number of different polymers and plastics, including some that are specially designed to withstand high temperatures or large amounts of stress without melting or breaking. Without fluorine compounds that are central components of a specific polymers, a number of modern uses of plastic wouldn't be possible.
For years, it was also used with chlorine in the creation of refrigerants and cooling solutions but those compounds (called CFCs) were found to be dangerous to the Earth's ozone layer. Refrigerants today use only fluorine combined with carbon and hydrogen.
Another use of fluorinated compounds is in glass etching, where hydrofluoric acid is used by a number of industries. In addition to decorative etching on glassware, this acid can also be used to mark light bulbs and other highly-sensitive glass pieces that would be much too thin for other etching methods to be used.
Of course, the most common use of fluorine compounds that people are familiar with is fluoride. Fluoride has been proven to help prevent tooth decay, and as such is commonly added to toothpaste and a number of mouth washes. Many places add a very small amount of fluoride to their water supply as well, enabling it to assist in purifying the water and also providing those who use that water with the benefit of fluoride even if they don't brush their teeth or use fluoride mouthwash regularly. The largest benefit of fluoride can be had for children whose teeth are still developing, as the fluoride can actually help the growing tooth material to become stronger and much more resistant to tooth decay and similar dental problems.
Continued Usefulness of Fluorine
Even with the discontinuing of some products which contained CFC's, fluorine remains a widely used chemical for all of the reasons listed above. Variations of the materials that fluorine is used in the manufacture of continue to be conceived and created, and the reactivity of the element lends it to even further usefulness as new polymers and other materials are created. It also plays an important economic factor as well, as the United States currently does not have any active mining operations for the minerals that are used to produce elemental fluorine and its compounds. Because of this, they are required to import all of their fluorine from other countries which still actively mine for fluorine minerals such as cryolite, fluorspar, and fluorapatite.