Selenium (IPA: /s?'li?ni?m/) is a chemical element with atomic number 34, with the chemical symbol Se. Selenium occurs only rarely in the free state in nature. It is a nonmetal that is chemically related to sulfur and tellurium. It is toxic in large amounts, but trace amounts of it, forming the active center of certain enzymes, are necessary for the function of all cells in (probably) all living organisms.
Isolated selenium occurs in several different forms, but the most stable of these is a dense purplish-gray semimetal (semiconductor) form that is structurally a trigonal polymer chain. It conducts electricity better in the light than in the dark, and is used in photocells (see allotropic section below). Selenium also exists in many nonconductive forms: a black glass-like substance, as well as several red crystalline forms built of eight-membered ring molecules, like its lighter cousin sulfur.
Selenium is found in economic quantities partially replacing sulfur in sulfide ores such as pyrite. Minerals that are selenide or selenate compounds are also known, but all are rare.
Selenium occurs naturally in a number of inorganic forms, including selenide, selenate and selenite. In soils, selenium most often occurs in soluble forms like selenate (analogous to sulfate), which are leached into rivers very easily by runoff.
Selenium has a biological role, and is found in organic compounds such as dimethyl selenide, selenomethionine and selenocysteine. In these compounds selenium plays an analogous role to sulfur.
Selenium is most commonly produced from selenide in many sulfide ores, such as those of copper, silver, or lead. It is obtained as a byproduct of the processing of these ores, from the anode mud of copper refineries and the mud from the lead chambers of sulfuric acid plants. These muds can be processed by a number of means to obtain free selenium.
Natural sources of selenium include certain selenium-rich soils, and selenium that has been bioconcentrated by certain toxic plants such as locoweed. Anthropogenic sources of selenium include coal burning and the mining and smelting of sulfide ores.
Selenium has six naturally-occurring isotopes, five of which are stable: 74Se, 76Se, 77Se, 78Se, and 80Se. 82Se has a very long half life and for practical purposes can be considered to be stable as well. 24 other unstable isotopes have been characterized.
History and changing global demand for selenium
Selenium (Greek se???? selene meaning "Moon") was discovered in 1817 by Jöns Jakob Berzelius who found the element associated with tellurium (named for the Earth).
Growth in selenium consumption was historically driven by steady development of new uses, including applications in rubber compounding, steel alloying, and selenium rectifiers. By 1970, selenium in rectifiers had largely been replaced by silicon, but its use as a photoconductor in plain paper copiers had become its leading application. During the 1980s, the photoconductor application declined (although it was still a large end-use) as more and more copiers using organic photoconductors were produced. Presently, the largest use of selenium world-wide is in glass manufacturing, followed by uses in chemicals and pigments. Electronic use, despite a number of continued applications, continues to decline.
In 1996, continuing research showed a positive correlation between selenium supplementation and cancer prevention in humans, but widespread direct application of this important finding would not add significantly to demand owing to the small doses required. In the late 1990s, the use of selenium (usually with bismuth) as an additive to plumbing brasses to meet no-lead environmental standards, became important. At present, total world selenium production continues to increase modestly.
Selenium and health
Although it is toxic in large doses, selenium is an essential micronutrient for animals. It is a component of the unusual amino acids selenocysteine and selenomethionine. In humans, selenium is a trace element nutrient which functions as cofactor for reduction of antioxidant enzymes such as glutathione peroxidases and thioredoxin reductase. It also plays a role in the functioning of the thyroid gland by participating as a cofactor for thyroid hormone deiodinases. Dietary selenium comes from nuts, cereals, meat, fish, and eggs. Brazil nuts are the richest source, with high levels also in kidney, crab and lobster, in that order. In the USA, the recommended dietary allowance for adults is 55 micrograms per day.
Although selenium is an essential trace element it is toxic if taken in excess. Exceeding the Tolerable Upper Intake Level of 400 micrograms per day can lead to selenosis. Symptoms of selenosis include a garlic odour on the breath, gastrointestinal disorders, hair loss, sloughing of nails, fatigue, irritability and neurological damage. Extreme cases of selenosis can result in cirrhosis of the liver, pulmonary edema and death.
Elemental selenium and most metallic selenides have relatively low toxicities because of their low bioavailability. By contrast, selenate and selenite are very toxic, and have modes of action similar to that of arsenic. Hydrogen selenide is an extremely toxic, corrosive gas. Selenium also occurs in organic compounds such as dimethyl selenide, selenomethionine and selenocysteine, all of which have high bioavailability and are toxic in large doses.
Selenium poisoning of water systems may result whenever new agricultural runoff courses through normally-dry undeveloped lands. This process leaches natural soluble selenium compounds (such as selenates) into the water, which may then be concentrated in new "wetlands" as it evaporates. High selenium levels produced in this fashion have been found to have caused certain congenital disorders in wetland birds.
Selenium deficiency is relatively rare in healthy well-nourished individuals. It can occur in patients with severely compromised intestinal function, or those undergoing total parenteral nutrition. Alternatively, people dependent on food grown from selenium-deficient soil are also at risk. In the USA, the Dietary Reference Intake for adults is 55 micrograms per day.
Selenium deficiency can lead to Keshan disease, which is potentially fatal. Selenium deficiency also contributes (along with iodine deficiency) to Kashin-Beck disease. The primary symptom of Keshan disease is myocardial necrosis, leading to weakening of the heart. Kashin-Beck disease results in atrophy, degeneration and necrosis of cartilage tissue. Keshan disease also makes the body more susceptible to illness caused by other nutritional, biochemical, or infectious diseases. These diseases are most common in certain parts of China where the soil is extremely deficient in selenium. Studies in Jiangsu Province of China have indicated a reduction in the prevalence of these diseases by taking selenium supplements.
Selenium is also necessary for the conversion of the thyroid hormone thyroxine (T4) into its more active counterpart, triiodothyronine, and as such a deficiency can cause symptoms of hypothyroidism, including extreme fatigue, mental slowing, goitre, cretinism and recurrent miscarriage.
Controversial Health Effects
Several studies have suggested a link between cancer and selenium deficiency. A study conducted on the effect of selenium supplementation on the recurrence of skin cancers did not demonstrate a reduced rate of recurrence of skin cancers, but did show a significantly reduced occurrence of total cancers. Dietary selenium prevents chemically induced carcinogenesis in many rodent studies. In these studies, organic seleno-compounds are more potent and less toxic than selenium salts (e.g., selenocyanates, selenomethionine, selenium-rich Brazil nuts, or selenium-enriched garlic or broccoli). Selenium may help prevent cancer by acting as an antioxidant or by enhancing immune activity. Not all studies agree on the cancer-fighting effects of selenium. One long-term study of selenium levels in over 60,000 participants did not show any correlation between selenium levels and risk of cancer. The SU.VI.MAX study concluded that low-dose supplementation (with 120 mg of ascorbic acid, 30 mg of vitamin E, 6 mg of beta carotene, 100 µg of selenium, and 20 mg of zinc) resulted in a 31% reduction in the incidence of cancer and a 37% reduction in all cause mortality in males, but did not get a significant result for females. The SELECT study is currently investigating the effect of selenium and vitamin E supplementation on incidence of prostate cancer. However, selenium has been proved to help chemotherapy treatment by enhancing the efficacy of the treatment, reducing the toxicity of chemotherapeutic drugs, and preventing the body's resistance to the drugs. One of the studies showed that in just 72 hours, the efficacy of treatment using chemotherapeutic drugs, such as Taxol and Adriamycin, with selenium yeast is significantly higher than the treatment using the drugs alone. The finding was shown in various cancer cells (breast, lung, small intestine, colon, liver).
Some research has indicated a geographical link between regions of selenium deficient soils and peak incidences of HIV/AIDS infection. For example, much of sub-Saharan Africa is low in selenium. However, Senegal is not, and also has a significantly lower level of AIDS infection than the rest of the continent. AIDS appears to involve a slow and progressive decline in levels of selenium in the body. Whether this decline in selenium levels is a direct result of the replication of HIV or related more generally to the overall malabsorption of nutrients by AIDS patients remains debated.
Low selenium levels in AIDS patients have been directly correlated with decreased immune cell count and increased disease progression and risk of death. Selenium normally acts as an antioxidant, so low levels of it may increase oxidative stress on the immune system leading to more rapid decline of the immune system. Others have argued that HIV encodes for the human selenoenzyme glutathione peroxidase, which depletes the victim's selenium levels. Depleted selenium levels in turn lead to a decline in CD4 helper T-cells, further weakening the immune system.
Regardless of the cause of depleted selenium levels in AIDS patients, studies have shown that selenium deficiency does strongly correlate with the progression of the disease and the risk of death. Selenium supplementation may help mitigate the symptoms of AIDS and reduce the risk of mortality. It should be emphasized that the evidence to date does not suggest that selenium can reduce the risk of infection or the rate of spread of AIDS, but rather treat the symptoms of those who are already infected.
Production and allotropic forms
Selenium is a common byproduct of copper refining, or the production of sulfuric acid. Isolation of selenium is often complicated by the presence of other compounds and elements. Commonly, production begins by oxidation with sodium carbonate to produce sodium selenite. The sodium selenite is then acidified with sulfuric acid producing selenous acid. The selenous acid is finally bubbled with sulfur dioxide producing elemental red amorphous selenium.
Selenium produced in chemical reactions invariably appears as the amorphous red form-- an insoluble brick red powder. When this form is rapidly melted, it forms the black, vitreous form which is usually sold industrially as beads. The most thermodynamically stable and dense form of selenium is the electrically conductive gray (trigonal) form, which is composed of long helical chains of selenium atoms. The conductivity of this form is notably light sensitive. Selenium also exists in three different deep red crystalline monoclinic forms, which are composed of Se8 molecules, similar to many allotropes of sulfur.
Selenium is a catalyst in many chemical reactions and is widely used in various industrial and laboratory syntheses.
Manufacturing and materials use
The largest use of selenium world-wide is in glass and ceramic manufacturing, where it is used to give a red color to glasses, enamels and glazes as well as to remove color from glass by counteracting the green tint imparted by ferrous impurities.
Selenium is used with bismuth in brasses to replace more toxic lead. It is also used to improve the abrasion resistance in vulcanized rubbers.
Because of its photovoltaic and photoconductive properties, selenium is used in in photocopying, photocells, light meters and solar cells. It was once widely used in rectifiers. These uses have mostly been replaced by silicon-based devices, or are in the process of being replaced. The most notable exception is in power DC surge protection, where the superior energy capabilities of selenium suppressors make them more desirable than metal oxide varistors.
Sheets of amorphous selenium convert x-ray images to patterns of charge in xeroradiography and in solid-state flat panel x-ray cameras.
Selenium is used in the toning of photographic prints, and it is sold as a toner by numerous photographic manufacturers including Kodak and Fotospeed. Its use intensifies and extends the tonal range of black and white photographic images as well as improving the permanence of prints.
Selenium is used widely in vitamin preparations and other dietary supplements, in small doses (typically 50 to 200 micrograms per day for adult humans). Some livestock feeds are fortified with selenium as well.
Mercury selenide (HgSe)
Hydrogen selenide (H2Se)
Selenium dioxide (SeO2)
Selenic acid (H2SeO4)
Selenous acid (H2SeO3)
Selenium sulfides: Se4S4, SeS2, Se2S6
Sodium selenite (Na2SeO3)
Zinc selenide (ZnSe)