When you brush your teeth or use a sunblock, titanium dioxide is the secret agent responsible. Not many substances exceed its uses in our technological world. It is also a common substance as an ore in nature, despite the high price of the resilient metal. The white nature of the substance arises from its extremely high refractive index, just like a diamond. While being white may not seem the most useful quality, the anti-pollutant facility of the compound also has inventors thinking. Recently TiO2 has been used in jeans (“Field of Jeans”), on aluminium-cladding on buildings and on paving stones to absorb the nitrogen oxides of car exhaust.
With a photoreactive ability to kill bacteria, this adaptable oxide has also been used to kill bacteria in hospitals with fluorescent lighting (courtesy of a Manchester Metropolitan University team.) The effects on human cells are less drastic, but as nanoparticles in most cosmetic sunscreens, titanium dioxide has been declared as a possible toxin, causing cell damage, emphysema and even brain injury. This will result in alarming effects on human development, meaning children are being affected daily by titanium in sweets, toothpaste and elsewhere. The sunscreen effect is similar to the whitening that we get on teeth and in paints from the compound, but alternatively, our health certainly benefits from the U/V screening.
Using 4 billion tonnes of this oxide makes it one of the market leaders as far as simple oxides in everyday life go. If you can think of a new invention, you will want to use titanium oxide because of its numerous properties. It is already a component in the PV cells we use on our roofs, conducting electrons from the organic dyes used to absorb light. People who invent correction fluids, tattoos or fireworks have already followed that well-trodden path. Perhaps the most recent use is in self-leaning products such as glass (Pilkington’s Activ) or cotton clothing (known as, “functionalised fabric.”) Yes, that’s the same old photoreactive property of this unstoppable oxide, breaking down organ dirt in sunlight!
Earth Times found many valuable sources for this article, not least in - The Royal Society of Chemistry’s monthly series on various compounds.