Plutonium (Pu) - Discovery, Occurrence, Production, Properties and Applications of Plutonium

Chemical Formula

Pu

Background

Arthur C. Wohl, Edward M. McMillan, Joseph W. Kennedy and Glenn T. Seaborg first discovered plutonium at the University of California in 1941.They bombarded uranium-238 atoms with deuterons in a 60-inch cyclotron and created neptunium-238 and two free neutrons. Neptunium-238 further decomposed into plutonium-238 via beta decay. The element was named after the planet Pluto.

Basic Information

Name Plutonium
Symbol Pu
Atomic number 94
Atomic weight 244 amu
Standard state Solid at 298 K
CAS Registry ID 7/5/7440
Group name Actinoid
Period in periodic table 7
Block in periodic table f-block
Color Silvery white
Classification Metallic
Melting point 913 K (640°C or 1184°F)
Boiling point 3501 K (3228°C or 5842°F)
Density 19.84 g/cm3
Phase at room temperature Solid

Occurrence

Traces of plutonium can be obtained from uranium ores. Commercially, it is produced by irradiation of uranium in nuclear reactors.

Plutonium - Periodic Table of Videos

Isotopes

Plutonium has 17 radioactive isotopes with mass numbers from 227Pu to 248Pu. The longest-lived isotopes of plutonium are 244Pu with a half-life of 80.8 million years, 242Pu with a half-life of 373,300 years and 239Pu with a half-life of 24,110 years.

Production

Plutonium is produced in nuclear reactors by irradiating uranium-238 with neutrons to form uranium-239, which in turn undergoes of series of nuclear reactions to form plutonium-239.

U-238 + n → U-239 → Np-239 → Pu-239

Health Aspects

Human exposure to radioactive plutonium for a long time may lead to deposition of the element in the internal body organs, thus causing the development of cancer.

Key Properties

The key properties of plutonium are listed below:

  • It is a silvery radioactive metal
  • It has six allotropic forms
  • It readily dissolves in mineral acids
  • It is chemically reactive and forms compounds with the halogens, silicon, nitrogen and carbon
  • It is warm to the touch owing to the heat of radioactive decay.

Applications

Some of the major applications of plutonium include the following:

  • It is used in nuclear bombs and reactors due to its ability to undergo nuclear chain reactions
  • It is used as heat and power sources for space probes
  • It is widely used in artificial pacemakers

References

G.P. Thomas

Written by

G.P. Thomas

Gary graduated from the University of Manchester with a first-class honours degree in Geochemistry and a Masters in Earth Sciences. After working in the Australian mining industry, Gary decided to hang up his geology boots and turn his hand to writing. When he isn't developing topical and informative content, Gary can usually be found playing his beloved guitar, or watching Aston Villa FC snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

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