Antifreeze in ice cream? These unusual ingredients are found in everyday products
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Antifreeze in ice cream? These unusual ingredients are found in everyday products

Dec 25, 2023

Dig into the history of these household items and you'll find some surprises—from moon metals to the extract of Tibetan lakes.

This coolant keeps engines from overheating but can also be found in ice cream. A familiar mineral found in laundry detergent once required 20-mule teams to haul it across a grueling 165-mile trek through one of the world’s hottest places. And this kitchen staple enabled ancient civilizations—from Egypt to Peru’s Machu Picchu—to cast shapes in closed molds, producing not only complex tools and weapons but also timeless works of art uncovered by archaeologists.

Can you guess what common products the above histories are tied to? Here are the answers to those and a bit more:

1). Antifreeze history stretches from dynamite to ice cream

Ethylene glycol, which we know as antifreeze was originally used in dynamite. It allowed the explosive to be made in safe, cool, surroundings.

Early car engines used plain water as a coolant, and it worked like a champ—in the summer. In the winter, water doesn’t just freeze; it expands as it freezes, and so it wasn’t practical in an enclosed engine.

Car manufacturers began adding methanol, an alcohol, to the water. Methanol did lower the coolant’s freezing point, but its tendency to evaporate and corrode the engine made it, too, less than ideal. So, automakers turned to ethylene glycol, an organic chemical compound first synthesized in 1856 by French chemist Charles-Adolph Wurtz. Added to water, it not only lowers the freezing point but also raises the boiling point, making it an antiboil as well as an antifreeze. Automakers adopted the compound in 1926, and it continues to be used today.

Ethylene glycol is highly toxic as well as useful. Ethylene is a natural plant hormone, and ethylene glycol has a sweet, fruity taste that can entice pets and small children. Therefore, some manufacturers add a bitter flavor to the fluid, while others are turning to another chemical, propylene glycol.

This form of antifreeze is so benign that it is used in toothpaste and ice cream.

2). Borax can be found from the laundry room to the Great Wall of China

Borax is also called tincal, a Sanskrit word for the soft, colorless mineral that’s been used and traded for centuries. It was first extracted from salty lakes in places like Tibet and Kashmir, then traded along the Silk Road from the ninth century A.D.

Arab gold- and silversmiths used borax to separate and purify metals. Potters in 10th-century China used it to add durability and shine to their pots—just as modern potters still do today.

When borax made it to Europe in the Middle Ages, it was employed in the soldering process to clean metal pieces soon to be melted and joined. Borax was expensive, though—an exotic import. Deposits were discovered in Italy in 1776, but America had to wait another hundred years. That’s when F. M. Smith—“the Borax King”—unearthed it in the salt flats of Death Valley, California, and established his Harmony Borax Works. Smith’s famous 20-mule teams would haul the mineral from Furnace Creek to the railway near Mojave, a grueling 165-mile trek through one of the world’s hottest places. The mules made those trips for only about six years before being supplanted by railroads, but the continued marketing of “20-Mule-Team Borax Soap” turned the journeys into symbols of the Old West.

Around 50 percent of the world’s borax now comes from Southern California. The ancients may have used it for crafting metals, but its value as a natural water softener means it’s most likely to be found in laundry detergent today.

Some clay pots found at an 11th-century site near the Great Wall of China were covered in a green glaze made with borax.

3). Cedar oil can both repel and heal

If you’ve ever stuck your nose inside a cedar chest, you’ll remember the warm, woody, comforting smell that greeted you. But the oil present in cedar does more than smell good: It disinfects, preserves, soothes, and keeps bugs at bay.

Ancient civilizations understood cedar oil’s power to cleanse and heal. The Sumerians considered the cedar tree to be the Tree of Life. They used its oil for medicinal purposes and ground it up with additives such as cobalt and copper to make brightly colored paints. Egyptians sometimes used cedar oil as part of their embalming process, and ancient Greeks found it worked well in warding off infection. In the Middle Ages, some people believed that burning cedar and applying its oil could rid a house of plague (though rats may not have agreed). The 17th-century English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper noted that cedar wood and oil eased everything from heart problems and shortness of breath to labor pains. Today, commercial “cedar oil” often derives from distilling the wood, leaves, and other parts of a variety of conifers besides cedar, such as juniper and cypress, but the result is similar. Cedar oil continues to shine as an insect repellent and a favorite scent in aromatherapy.

Native Americans used cedar oil to heal wounds, soothe sore muscles, cure headaches and constipation, and even remove warts.

4). Scandium is plentiful on the moon—and can be used to light a baseball field

Scandium, a silvery metal almost as light as aluminum but with a higher melting point, was discovered by Swedish chemist Lars F. Nilson in 1879. Ten years earlier, Dmitri Mendeleev, the Russian who was the father of the periodic table, predicted there should be an element between calcium and titanium, which he called ekaboron. Nilson proved Mendeleev right but chose to call it scandium, for the region of its discovery.

Nilson came upon scandium by accident while studying so-called rare-earth metals. Most such metals aren’t actually rare, but scandium proved an exception: It’s more plentiful on the moon than on Earth. Pure scandium is created in the cosmic furnaces of supernovas, but on our home planet, it occurs only in small quantities bound together with other elements. The first pound of pure scandium wasn’t produced until 1960. One of the few scandium mines in the world is located in Russia, where the low-density metal was combined with aluminum to create an alloy for military aircraft.

Scandium is much more expensive to produce than aluminum, so it is not widely used. Nevertheless, it turns up in lightweight bike frames and lacrosse sticks. And scandium-alloy baseball bats create a springy “trampoline effect” that helps the bats propel balls more efficiently. The metal is also used in components of aerospace products.

Scandium iodide is used in mercury vapor lamps to make daylight-bright lights used in Hollywood studios and sports stadiums.

5). Tinfoil: From leftovers to timeless works of art

We used tinfoil for so long as our primary means of wrapping leftovers that some people call aluminum foil by that name.

Although tin wasn’t given pride of place like bronze when it came to the naming of eras, it nevertheless helped give birth to the Bronze Age, when bronze tools began showing up in the historical record around 3000 B.C. Early toolmakers discovered, perhaps accidentally, that adding tin to copper lowered melting points and made the result stronger: bronze. From Egypt to Peru’s Machu Picchu, it was tin that enabled ancient people to cast shapes in closed molds, producing not only complex tools and weapons but also timeless works of art that archaeologists have discovered. The ancient Greeks traveled by sea to source tin, collecting it from mines around Spain and the British Isles and then trading it throughout the ancient world.

Tin has been alloyed with many other metals, including steel, antimony, and silver. It has even loaned its name to some of the things it helped create. Food-preserving tin-coated steel cans—“tins”—were patented in England in 1810. In Australia beer cans are still referred to as tinnies. The tin whistle is so-called because it was originally mass-produced using tin-plated steel. Tin is functional, but it can also be decorative. Artfully punched tin was once a popular way to allow air to circulate into food boxes, and it can still be found decorating many people’s tables today.