CHROME’S COLOURFUL HISTORY – From The International Chromium Development Association (ICDA)

The International Chromium Development Association (ICDA)

The Discovery of Chrome

In 1762, J. G. Legmann described an orange-yellow mineral discovered in Siberia’s Ural Mountains, which he called crocoite because it resembled the colour of egg yoke (krokos in Greek). Thirty-five years later, French chemist Nicolas-Louis Vauquelin identified a new metallic element in this mineral. He called it “chromium”, after the Greek khrōma, meaning colour, because of its colourful compounds. Indeed, the yellow deposit obtained by crushing the mineral was already being used as a paint pigment. After further research, Vauquelin found that trace elements of chrome give rubies their characteristic red colour and emeralds, serpentine and chrome mica their distinctive green.

A multiplicity of Uses

Chrome’s versatility soon became even more evident. While paint remained the main application for many years, in the 19th century potassium dichromate was found to be an excellent mordant in textile dyeing. A mordant (from the Latin mordere, to bite) helps dyes attach and adhere to fabric. A few years later, chromic sulphate was introduced in a process for tanning leather. A related application – chrome’s use as a timber preservative – dates from the early 20th century.

The 1850s saw the discovery of chromium plating – an electrodeposition that gives metal certain properties, including abrasion and wear resistance, corrosion protection, lubricity and aesthetic qualities.

Quite late in the 19th century, chrome began to be used in refractory bricks (an application which saw substantial growth in the 1930s). Its use in foundry sands, for moulding, did not come until the 20th century.

Chrome finds its true vocation

The first patent for the use of chrome in steel was granted in 1865. However, the large-scale use of chrome in metals had to await the development of the electric arc furnace in the early 1900s, which made it possible to smelt chromite into ferrochrome. At this stage, chrome was used to produce chrome metal – an alloy composed almost entirely of chrome.

Then stainless steel was discovered and the rest, as they say, is history. At the start of the 20th century, world production of chromite was less than 100,000 tonnes. In 2000 it was 16 million tonnes. In 2010 it had risen to 25 million tonnes.


Louis-Nicholas Vauquelin discovered chromium while experimenting with a Siberian red lead ore, also known as the mineral crocoite (PbCrO4), in 1797.

He produced chromium oxide (CrO3) by mixing crocoite with hydrochloric acid (HCl). Vauquelin was pleasantly surprised in 1798 to discover that he was able to obtain metallic chromium by simply heating chromium oxide in a charcoal oven.

1762: Legmann discovers crocoite

1797: The western world identifies chromium (Vauquelin)
1811: First known major chromite discovery in the USA (exploited immediately)
1820: Potassium dichromate first used as a tanning mordant and Koechlin introduces chrome yellow in calico printing
1821: Berthier and Faraday discover chromium’s alloying properties and produce the first chrome-alloyed steel
1828: Faraday discovers chrome’s alloying properties and produces the first steel

1830: Norway starts mining chromite
1846: Small chromite deposits discovered in Canada
1848: Important chromite discovery in Turkey
1849: Chromite discovered in India (but is only exploited 50 years later)
1858: Chrome leather tanning invented

1860: Turkey becomes world leader of chromite production
1865: Important discovery of chromite South Africa and Zimbabwe (but is only exploited 50 years later). First patent for the use of Cr in steel
1879: First recorded use of chrome in refractory applications
1882: Chromite discovered in Australia
1892: First commercial discovery of chromite on Russian territory

1893: Ferrochrome is first produced by Moissan in an electric furnace. First use in armour plating (Germany)
1897: America produces its first commercial high-carbon ferrochrome
1898: First production of pure chromium by aluminothermy
1906: Chrome ore is found in Brazil and Cuba. First industrial production of ferrochrome in USA by UCAR
1935: Chromated copper arsenate first used as a wood preservative in timber treatment

1937: Discovery of chromite deposits in Albania and the Philippines
1942 : First production of HC and M/L C ferrochrome in South Africa
1943: First ferrochrome site in the USSR (Kazakhstan)
1960: First use of chromite as a specialist foundry sand (South Africa)
1963:First furnace for charge chrome production in South Africa

1966: Soviet becomes the most important ferrochrome producer
1983: First DC plasma arc furnace for ferrochrome in South Africa
1999: South Africa becomes the world’s most important producer of charge chrome
2010: Record levels of ferrochrome and stainless steel production

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