Molybdenum is a chemical element with symbol Mo and atomic number 42. The name is from Neo-Latin molybdaenum, from Ancient Greek Μόλυβδος molybdos, meaning lead, since its ores were confused with lead ores. Molybdenum minerals have been known throughout history, but the element was discovered (in the sense of differentiating it as a new entity from the mineral salts of other metals) in 1778 by Carl Wilhelm Scheele. The metal was first isolated in 1781 by Peter Jacob Hjelm.
Molybdenum does not occur naturally as a free metal on Earth, but rather in various oxidation states in minerals. The free element, which is a silvery metal with a gray cast, has the sixth-highest melting point of any element. It readily forms hard, stable carbides in alloys, and for this reason most of world production of the element (about 80%) is in making many types of steel alloys, including high strength alloys and superalloys.
Most molybdenum compounds have low solubility in water, but the molybdate ion MoO2− 4 is soluble and forms when molybdenum-containing minerals are in contact with oxygen and water. Industrially, molybdenum compounds (about 14% of world production of the element) are used in high-pressure and high-temperature applications, as pigments, and as catalysts.
Molybdenum-containing enzymes are by far the most common catalysts used by some bacteria to break the chemical bond in atmospheric molecular nitrogen, allowing biological nitrogen fixation. At least 50 molybdenum-containing enzymes are now known in bacteria and animals, although only bacterial and cyanobacterial enzymes are involved in nitrogen fixation. These nitrogenases contain molybdenum in a different form from the other molybdenum-containing enzymes, which all contain fully oxidized molybdenum incorporated into a molybdenum cofactor. Owing to the diverse functions of the various molybdenum cofactor enzymes, molybdenum is a required element for life in all higher eukaryote organisms, though it is not required by all bacteria.