In chemical terms, calcium is reactive and soft for a metal; though harder than lead, it can be cut with a knife with difficulty. It is a silvery metallic element that must be extracted by electrolysis from a fused salt like calcium chloride. Once produced, it rapidly forms a gray-white oxide and nitride coating when exposed to air. In bulk form (typically as chips or "turnings"), the metal is somewhat difficult to ignite, more so even than magnesium chips; but, when lit, the metal burns in air with a brilliant high-intensity orange-red light. Calcium metal reacts with water, generating hydrogen gas at a rate rapid enough to be noticeable, but not fast enough at room temperature to generate much heat, making it useful for generating hydrogen. In powdered form, however, the reaction with water is extremely rapid, as the increased surface area of the powder accelerates the reaction with the water. Part of the reason for the slowness of the calcium–water reaction is a result of the metal being partly protected by insoluble white calcium hydroxide. In water solutions of acids, where this salt is soluble, calcium reacts vigorously.
With a density of 1.55 g/cm3, calcium is the lightest of the alkaline earth metals; magnesium (specific gravity 1.74) and beryllium (1.84) are denser though lighter in atomic mass. From strontium onward, the alkali earth metals become denser with increasing atomic mass.
Calcium has two allotropes.
Calcium has a higher electrical resistivity than copper or aluminium, yet weight-for-weight, due to its much lower density, it is a much better conductor than either. However, its use in terrestrial applications is usually limited by its high reactivity with air.
Calcium salts are colorless from any contribution of the calcium, and ionic solutions of calcium (Ca2+) are colorless as well. As with magnesium salts and other alkaline earth metal salts, calcium salts are often quite soluble in water. Notable exceptions include calcium hydroxide, calcium sulfate (unusual for sulfate salts), calcium carbonate and tricalcium phosphate. With the exception of calcium sulfate, even the insoluble calcium salts listed are in general more soluble than the transition metal counterparts. When in solution, the calcium ion varies remarkably to the human taste, being reported as mildly salty, sour, "mineral-like" or even "soothing." It is apparent that many animals can taste, or develop a taste, for calcium, and use this sense to detect the mineral in salt licks or other sources. In human nutrition, soluble calcium salts may be added to tart juices without much effect to the average palate.
Calcium is the fifth-most-abundant element by mass in the human body, where it is an important cellular ionic messenger with many functions. Calcium also serves as a structural element in bone. It is the relatively high-atomic-number calcium in the skeleton that causes bone to be radio-opaque. Of the human body's solid components after drying and burning of organics (as for example, after cremation), about a third of the total "mineral" mass remaining is the approximately one kilogram of calcium that composes the average skeleton (the remainder being mostly phosphorus and oxygen).
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