Selenium (Se) was discovered in 1817 in pyrite from copper mines in Sweden. It is a trace element in Earth’s crust, with an abundance of three to seven orders of magnitude less than the major rock-forming elements. Commercial use of selenium began in the United States in 1910, when it was used as a pigment for paints, ceramic glazes, and red glass. Since that time, it has had many other economic uses—notably, in the 1930s and 1940s, when it was used in rectifiers (which change alternating current to direct current), and in the 1960s, when it began to be used in the liner of photocopier drums. In the 21st century, other compounds have replaced selenium in these older products; modern uses for selenium include energy-efficient windows that limit heat transfer and thin-film photovoltaic cells that convert solar energy into electricity.
In Earth’s crust, selenium is found as selenide minerals, selenate and selenite salts, and as substitution for sulfur in sulfide minerals. It is the sulfide minerals, most commonly those in porphyry copper deposits, that provide the bulk of the selenium produced for the international commodity market. Selenium is obtained as a byproduct of copper refining and recovered from the anode slimes generated in electrolytic production of copper. Because of this, the countries that have the largest resources and (or) reserves of copper also have the largest resources and (or) reserves of selenium.
Because selenium occurs naturally in Earth’s crust, its presence in air, water, and soil results from both geologic reactions and human activity. Selenium is found concentrated naturally in soils that overlie bedrock with high selenium concentrations. Selenium mining, processing, use in industrial and agricultural applications, and disposal may all contribute selenium to the environment. A well-known case of selenium contamination from agricultural practices was discovered in 1983 in the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in California. There, waters draining from agricultural fields created wetlands with high concentrations of dissolved selenium in the water. The selenium was taken up by aquatic wildlife and caused massive numbers of embryonic deformities and deaths.
Regulatory agencies have since worked to safeguard ecological and human health by creating environmental exposure guidelines based upon selenium concentrations in water and in fish tissue. Any attempt to regulate selenium concentrations requires a delicate balance because selenium occurs naturally and is also a vital nutrient for the health of wildlife, domestic stock, and humans. Selenium is commonly added as a vitamin to animal feed, and in some regions of the United States and the world, it is added as an amendment to soils for uptake by agricultural crops.
The important role of selenium in economic products, energy supply, agriculture, and health will continue for well into the future. The challenge to society is to balance the benefits of selenium use with the environmental consequences of its extraction. Increased understanding of the elemental cycle of selenium in the earth may lead to new (or unconventional) sources of selenium, the discovery of new methods of extraction, and new technologies for minimizing the transfer of selenium from rock to biota, so to protect environmental and human health.