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Uranium glass vessels.
Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

8 Essential Facts About Uranium

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Uranium glass vessels.
Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.

Uranium took some time asserting itself. For centuries, heaps of it languished in waste rock piles near European mines. After formal discovery of the element in the late 18th century, it found a useful niche coloring glass and dinner plates. In the first half of the 20th century, scientists began investigating uranium's innate potential as an energy source, and it has earned its place among the substances that define the "Atomic Age," the era in which we still live. Here are some essential facts about U92.

1. IT'S THE HEAVIEST NATURALLY OCCURRING ELEMENT IN THE UNIVERSE.

With a nucleus packed with 92 protons, uranium is the heaviest of the elements. That weight once compelled shipbuilders to use spent uranium as ballast in ship keels. Were it employed that way now, sailing into port could set off defense systems.

Uranium was first found in silver mines in the 1500s in what's now the Czech Republic. It generally appeared where the silver vein ran out, earning it the nickname pechblende, meaning "bad luck rock." In 1789, Martin Klaproth, a German chemist analyzing mineral samples from the mines, heated it and isolated a "strange kind of half-metal"—uranium dioxide. He named it after the recently discovered planet Uranus.

French physicist Henri Becquerel discovered uranium's radioactive properties—and radioactivity itself—in 1896. He left uranyl potassium sulfate, a type of salt, on a photographic plate in a drawer, and found the uranium had fogged the glass like exposure to sunlight would have. It had emitted its own rays.

2. ITS TRANSFORMATIONS PROVED THE ALCHEMISTS RIGHT … A LITTLE.

Uranium decays into other elements, shedding protons to become protactinium, radium, radon, polonium, and on for a total of 14 transitions, all of them radioactive, until it finds a resting point as lead. Before Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy discovered this trait around 1901, the notion of transforming one element into another was thought to be solely the territory of alchemists.

3. IT'S HIGHLY UNSTABLE.

Uranium's size creates instability. As Tom Zoellner writes in Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World, "A uranium atom is so overloaded that it has begun to cast off pieces of itself, as a deluded man might tear off his clothes. In a frenzy to achieve a state of rest, it slings off a missile of two protons and two neutrons at a velocity fast enough to whip around the circumference of the earth in roughly two seconds."

4. IF YOU INGEST IT, THANK YOUR KIDNEYS FOR KEEPING YOU ALIVE.

Traces of uranium appear in rock, soil, and water, and can be ingested in root vegetables and seafood. Kidneys take the burden of removing it from the bloodstream, and at high enough levels, that process can damage cells, according to the Argonne National Laboratory. But here's the good news: After short-term, low-level exposures, kidneys can repair themselves.

5. URANIUM MADE FIESTA WARE COLORFUL … AND RADIOACTIVE.

Before we recognized uranium's potential for energy—and bombs—most of its uses revolved around color. Photographers washed platinotype prints in uranium salts to tone otherwise black and white images reddish-brown. Added to glass, uranium gave beads and goblets a canary hue. Perhaps most disconcertingly, uranium makes Fiesta Ware's red-orange glaze—a.k.a. "radioactive red"—as hot as it looks; plates made before 1973 still send Geiger counters into a frenzy.

6. "TICKLING THE DRAGON'S TAIL" WAS KEY TO MAKING THE FIRST ATOMIC BOMBS.

Uranium occurs naturally in three isotopes (forms with different masses): 234, 235, and 238. Only uranium-235—which constitutes a mere 0.72 percent of an average uranium ore sample—can trigger a nuclear chain reaction. In that process, a neutron bombards a uranium nucleus, causing it to split, shedding neutrons that go on to divide more nuclei.

In the 1940s, a team of scientists began experimenting in the then-secret city of Los Alamos, New Mexico, with how to harness that power. They called it "tickling the dragon's tail." The uranium bomb their work built, Little Boy, detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Estimates vary, but the detonation is thought to have killed 70,000 people in the initial blast and at least another 130,000 more from radiation poisoning over the following five years.

The same property that powered bombs is what now makes uranium useful for electricity. "It's very energy dense, so the amount of energy you can get out of one gram of uranium is exponentially more than you can get out of a gram of coal or a gram of oil," Denise Lee, research and development staff member at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, tells Mental Floss. A uranium fuel pellet the size of a fingertip boasts the same energy potential as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 1780 pounds of coal, or 149 gallons of oil, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group.

7. THE EARTH CREATED ITS OWN NATURAL NUCLEAR REACTORS BILLIONS OF YEARS AGO.

In the 1970s, ore samples from a mine in what is now Gabon came up short on uranium-235, finding it at 0.717 percent instead of the expected 0.72 percent. In part of the mine, about 200 kilograms were mysteriously absent—enough to have fueled a half-dozen nuclear bombs. At the time, the possibility of nuclear fission reactors spontaneously occurring was just a theory. The conditions for it required a certain deposit size, a higher concentration of uranium-235, and a surrounding environment that encouraged nuclei to continue splitting. Based on uranium-235's half-life, researchers determined that about 2 billion years ago, uranium occurred as about 3 percent of the ore. It was enough to set off nuclear fission reactions in at least 16 places, which flickered on and off for hundreds of thousands of years. As impressive as that sounds, the average output was likely less than 100 kilowatts—enough to run a few dozen toasters, as physicist Alex Meshik explained in Scientific American.

8. AS A POWER SOURCE, IT'S "PRACTICALLY INFINITE."

A 2010 study from MIT found the world had enough uranium reserves to supply power for decades to come. At present, all commercial nuclear power plants use at least some uranium, though plutonium is in the mix as well. One run through the reactors consumes only about 3 percent of the enriched uranium. "If you could reprocess it multiple times, it can be practically infinite," Stephanie Bruffey, a research and development staff member for Oak Ridge National Laboratory, tells Mental Floss. Tons of depleted uranium or its radioactive waste byproducts sit on concrete platforms at nuclear power plants and in vaults at historic weapons facilities around the country; these once temporary storage systems have become a permanent home. 

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Uranium glass vessels.
iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
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The Elements
9 Essential Facts About Carbon
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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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