Plutonium

Monday, September 22, 2008

Plutonium is a rare radioactive, metallic chemical element with symbol Pu and an atomic number 94. The most significant isotope of plutonium is 239Pu, with a half-life of 24,100 years. This isotope is fissile and is used in most modern nuclear weapons. Plutonium-239 can be synthesized from natural uranium. But the most stable isotope is 244Pu, with a half-life of approximately 80 million years, long enough to be found in extremely small quantities in nature, making 244Pu the most nucleon-rich atom that naturally occurs in the Earth's crust, albeit in small traces.

Plutonium was the second transuranium element of the actinide series to be discovered. By far of greatest importance is the isotope 239Pu, which has a half-life of more than 20000 years. One kilogram is equivalent to about 22 million kilowatt hours of heat energy. The complete detonation of a kilogram of plutonium produces an explosion equal to about 20000 tons of chemical explosive. The various nuclear applications of plutonium are well known. The isotope 233Pu was used in the American Apollo lunar missions to power seismic and other equipment on the lunar surface. Plutonium contamination is an emotive environmental problem.

Plutonium is silvery in pure form, but has a yellow tarnish when oxidized. It possesses a low-symmetry structure, causing it to become progressively more brittle over time. The isotope 239Pu is a key fissile component in nuclear weapons, due to its ease of fissioning and availability. The critical mass for an unreflected sphere of plutonium is 16 kg, but through the use of a neutron-reflecting tamper the pit of plutonium in a fission bomb is reduced to 10 kg, which is a sphere with a diameter of 10 cm. The Manhattan Project "Fat Man" type plutonium bombs, using explosive compression of Pu to significantly higher densities than normal, were able to function with plutonium cores of only 6.2 kg. Complete detonation may be achieved through the use of an additional neutron source. The Fat Man bomb had an explosive yield of 21 kilotons.

The isotope plutonium-238 (238Pu) has a half-life of 88 years and emits a large amount of thermal energy as it decays. Being an alpha emitter, it combines high energy radiation with low penetration (thereby requiring minimal shielding). These characteristics make it well suited for electrical power generation for devices which must function without direct maintenance for timescales approximating a human lifetime. 238Pu has been used successfully to power artificial heart pacemakers, to reduce the risk of repeated surgery. It has been largely replaced by lithium-based primary cells, but as of 2003 there were somewhere between 50 and 100 plutonium-powered pacemakers still implanted and functioning in living patients.