Stibnite, the antimony sulphide Sb2S3, was known in ancient times. Egyptian women used it to blacken their eyebrows (the Latin word stibium means stain). The flower petal aspect that is observed on the natural sulphide varieties explains the etymology of the word antimony, derived from the Greek ανθος (flower).
However, a cast antimony vase dating back to 4000 BC has been found in Chaldea, and antimony-coated copper articles were used in Egypt between 2500 and 2200 BC.
It is not known exactly who isolated the metal for the first time, but antimony acquired considerable acclaim in 1707 when the French chemist Lémery published his Traité de l’Antimoine.
- A very brittle, bluish-white metal with a very distinct crystalline texture.
- Like arsenic, there are various allotropes, one of which, yellow antimony, occurs only at temperatures below –80°C and is liable to explode.
- Another, black antimony, crystallises in the rhombohedral system and exhibits a metallic lustre but is extremely brittle and much less volatile than arsenic.
- Because of its excessive brittleness and the difficulty of shaping it, antimony has no direct applications, but is extensively used as an alloying element. Hard lead contains 15 to 25% Sb. Type metal contains 60% Pb, 20 to 30% Sb and 10 to 20% Sn, but this use has been virtually eliminated as a result of the development of the offset printing process.
- Also present in certain Pb–Sn–Sb anti-friction metals used to make bearings for large compressors and propeller shafts.
- Used in lead-acid batteries to harden the lead of which the electrodes (grids) are made.
- The major outlet - some 65% of total antimony consumption - is in the form of the oxide Sb4O6, which is used to render fabrics and plastics fireproof. Its properties make it possible for plastics to be used in applications where, under normal circumstances they would melt, such as in computer casings and televisions.
- Sodium antimonate is used in certain special glasses - television screens, for example. The intermetallic compounds AsSb, GaSb and InSb have found some applications in electronics.
- The sulphide Sb2S3 is one of the components of brake linings.
Antimony can be recovered in the residues from the lead refining process. The main end-of-life recycling option is from spent lead-acid batteries mainly recovered from old vehicles.