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Magnesium chloride is the name for the chemical compounds with the formulas MgCl2 and its various hydrates MgCl2(H2O)x. These salts are typical ionic halides, being highly soluble in water. The hydrated magnesium chloride can be extracted from brine or sea water. Magnesium chloride as the natural mineral Bischofite is also extracted (solution mining) out of ancient seabeds, for example the Zechstein seabed in NW Europe or the Permian Period seabed in the central parts of the US. Anhydrous magnesium chloride is the principal precursor to magnesium metal, which is produced on a large scale.
MgCl2 crystallizes in the cadmium chloride motif, which features octahedral Mg. A variety of hydrates are known with the formula MgCl2(H2O)x, and each loses water with increasing temperature: x = 12 (-16.4 °C), 8 (-3.4 °C), 6 (116.7 °C), 4 (181 °C), 2 (ca. 300 °C). In the hexahydrate, the Mg2+ remains octahedral, but is coordinated to six water ligands. The thermal dehydration of the hydrates MgCl2(H2O)x (x = 6, 12) does not occur straightforwardly.
As suggested by the existence of some hydrates, anhydrous MgCl2 is a Lewis acid, although a relatively weak one.
In the Dow process, magnesium chloride is regenerated from magnesium hydroxide using hydrochloric acid:
It can also be prepared from magnesium carbonate by a similar reaction.
In most of its derivatives, MgCl2 forms octahedral complexes. Derivatives with tetrahedral Mg2+ are less common. Examples include salts of (tetraethylammonium)2MgCl4 and adducts such as MgCl2(TMEDA).
Magnesium chloride serves as precursor to other magnesium compounds, for example by precipitation:
It can be electrolysed to give magnesium metal:
This process is practiced on a substantial scale.
Magnesium chloride is used for a variety of other applications besides the production of magnesium: the manufacture of textiles, paper, fireproofing agents, cements and refrigeration brine, and dust and erosion control. Mixed with hydrated magnesium oxide, magnesium chloride forms a hard material called Sorel cement.
Magnesium ion Mg2+ (usually added as the chloride) is an important component in the polymerase chain reaction, a procedure used to amplify DNA fragments. It is generally used in experimental biology whenever RNA and DNA and their enzymes are to function in vitro, since Mg2+ is a necessary associate ion for nucleotides in biology, such as ATP.
Magnesium chloride is also used in several medical and topical (skin related) applications. It has been used in pills as supplemental sources of magnesium, where it serves as a soluble compound which is not as laxitive as magnesium sulfate, and more bioavailable than magnesium hydroxide and magnesium oxide, since it does not require stomach acid to produce soluble Mg2+ ion. It can also be used as an effective anaesthetic for cephalopods and several species of bivalve, including oysters
Magnesium chloride is an important coagulant used in the preparation of tofu from soy milk. In Japan it is sold as nigari (にがり, derived from the Japanese word for "bitter"), a white powder produced from seawater after the sodium chloride has been removed, and the water evaporated. In China it is called "lushui" (卤水 in Chinese). Nigari or Lushui consists mostly of magnesium chloride, with some magnesium sulfate and other trace elements. It is also an ingredient in baby formula milk.
A number of state highway departments throughout the United States have decreased the use of rock salt and sand on roadways and have increased the use of solutions of magnesium chloride (often called "liquid magnesium chloride") as a de-icer or anti-icer. Magnesium chloride is much less toxic to plant life surrounding highways and airports, and is less corrosive to concrete and steel (and other iron alloys) than sodium chloride. The liquid magnesium chloride is sprayed on dry pavement (tarmac) prior to precipitation or wet pavement prior to freezing temperatures in the winter months to prevent snow and ice from adhering and bonding to the roadway. The application of anti-icers is utilized in an effort to improve highway safety. Magnesium chloride is also sold in crystal form for household and business use to de-ice sidewalks and driveways. In these applications, the compound is applied after precipitation has fallen or ice has formed, instead of previously.
The use of this compound seems to show an improvement in driving conditions during and after freezing precipitation, but it can damage electric utilities. This occurs in two ways: contamination of insulators, causing tracking and arcing across them, and corrosion of steel and aluminium poles and pole hardware.
Road departments and private industry may apply liquid or powdered magnesium chloride to control dust and erosion on unimproved (dirt or gravel) roads and dusty job sites such as quarries. Its hygroscopy makes it absorb moisture from the air, controlling the number of small particles which become airborne. Similarly, owners of indoor arenas (e.g. for horse riding) may apply magnesium chloride to sand or other floor materials to control dust.
Magnesium chloride has shown promise as a storage material for hydrogen. Ammonia, which is rich in hydrogen atoms, is used as an intermediate storage material. Ammonia can be effectively adsorbed onto solid magnesium chloride, forming Mg(NH3)6Cl2. Ammonia is released by mild heat, and is then passed through a catalyst to give hydrogen gas.