Uranium glass vessels.
Uranium glass vessels.
Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

8 Essential Facts About Uranium

Uranium glass vessels.
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.
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10 Facts About Lithium
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Lithium is one of the smallest, simplest, and oldest elements, but it has been tapped to unlock some big, messy problems. It's a key ingredient in the batteries that power smartphones, laptops, and electric cars. But it's also proven to be one of the most effective treatments for bipolar disorder, and recent research may make lithium the key to unlocking the causes of that illness.

1. THE MAN WHO DISCOVERED LITHIUM GAVE UP SCIENCE SOON AFTER.

crimson flames
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In 1800, Brazilian naturalist José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva discovered petalite, a rare gem-quality mineral found in granite, on the island of Utö, Sweden. He found that the rock had a strange quality: When thrown into a fire, it created intense crimson flames. In 1817, a 25-year-old Swedish aristocrat-turned-chemist named Johan August Arfvedson discovered lithium while analyzing petalite. Arfvedson identified the culprit for the red flames by process of elimination: Having recognized most of the mineral's content as silica and aluminum, he deduced a new alkali metal made up the remaining share. It was Arfvedson's only recorded discovery; he soon retired from chemistry to manage his inherited fortune.

Lithium was later isolated in its elemental metal form using electricity. That process, electrolysis, is still used in lithium production.

2. LITHIUM IS BORN IN STELLAR EXPLOSIONS—WHICH WE ONLY LEARNED IN 2013.

Hydrogen, helium, and lithium, the first three elements in the periodic table, were all created in the Big Bang, but the first two elements are abundant, and lithium is not. Astrophysicists had a theory that novae, or stellar explosions, were responsible for lithium's scant distribution in the universe, but they didn't have data for how that worked until Nova Centauri's December 2013 explosion—visible to the naked eye, if your eyes were in the southern hemisphere. Researchers witnessed the dying star ejecting lithium into space.

3. ITS SOURCES ARE LIMITED.

atacama salt flats in chile
Francesco Mocellin, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

More than half of the world's lithium supply comes from high-altitude lakes and bright white salt flats in the "lithium triangle" in Bolivia, Chile (as seen above), and Argentina, where it's mined in a grid of brine pools. In other regions, it comes from open-pit mines spiraling into layers of earth. Deposits have also been found in Australia, in the Tibetan portion of China, and in the U.S. in North Carolina and Nevada. Between 2015 and 2016, the price per ton of the commodity more than tripled, leading the UK to search for domestic supplies. At the current pace, according to consulting company Stormcrow Capital, demand for lithium could outpace production by 2023. To get around this looming shortage, some researchers are developing ways to recycle used lithium-ion batteries.

4. LITHIUM IS NEVER FOUND ALONE.

fragment of petalite
Eurico Zimbres, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Lithium doesn't range freely through nature, but instead has to be isolated from other minerals. Often, it's sourced from petalite (above). It's found in traces in almost all igneous rocks and in many mineral springs. Those who swim in lithium-infused hot springs are often told that it has curative powers, including improved brain function and elevated mood—though there's no evidence of this.

5. IT POWERS MANY OF YOUR DEVICES.

Lithium has several advantages that make it the go-to for powering everything from smartphones to hybrid cars. It's the lightest known metal, which means it can store power without adding a lot of weight to devices. Lithium-ion batteries also have some of the highest energy densities of any current battery technology; they deliver three times the voltage of nickel-based batteries, according to the University of Washington's Clean Energy Institute.

But those aren't lithium's only advantages. Many nickel-based batteries experience what's known as the "memory effect"—if they're repeatedly plugged in to charge before they're fully dead, they'll lose power capacity (so instead of remembering its full capacity, the battery will only remember half, for example). But that's not the case with lithium-ion batteries, which are believed to have no memory effect.

6. IT'S KEY TO IMPROVING ELECTRIC VEHICLES …

Current electric vehicle models require recharging after around 300 miles of driving. Given the limited number of re-charging stations available around the nation, that could make for tough logistics on cross-country road trips. So the Department of Energy is funding battery research to improve that range and has recruited five universities, three national laboratories, and IBM to the Battery500 Consortium to develop smaller, lighter, more efficient batteries that could, among other potential uses, increase the range of electric cars.

"If we're successful, we'll be able to double the range of electronic vehicles today. This by itself is extremely challenging," says Jihui Yang, chair of the University of Washington's department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Yang and his collaborators aim to replace the graphite currently used in the negative electrode of lithium-ion batteries with lithium metal. Doubling the use of lithium would significantly increase the power output of those batteries. To do so, though, they'll have to solve a big problem: In the all-lithium batteries that currently exist, lithium grows needle-like dendrites that can puncture the separator—a thin layer of porous polymer separating the negative and positive sides of a battery—causing the battery to short.

7. … AND HAS SET PLANES AND PHONES ON FIRE.

samsung galaxy 7 phone and recall notice
George Frey/Getty Images

Battery shorts can be more than just annoying—they can be incendiary. Some Boeing airplanes use lithium-ion batteries to power up their jet engines, and the quickly recharged batteries then serve as a backup power supply for electrical systems. But the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the entire Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet in 2013 after one plane's lithium-ion battery shorted out and started a fire—shortly after passengers had disembarked in Boston—and a battery malfunction warning went off in another plane.

Tesla Model S cars also saw fires in 2013 attributed to battery malfunctions. Then the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones started catching fire, prompting the FAA to ban the phones from flights. Samsung had tried to boost battery capacity to accommodate consumers' increasing game-playing and video-streaming habits while also shrinking the phone. Tasked with doing more in a smaller size, it became prone to meltdowns.

There's a reason why the batteries are so combustible. Lithium ions pass through the tiny holes in the separator between the positive and negative electrodes of the battery, carried by a liquid electrolyte solution. But if the separator is damaged—like by dropping your phone—or the chemistry underway is changed by the heat of recharging or sitting in the sun, the equation changes. The outputs of those changed chemical reactions include flammable gases, and lithium itself can also ignite in humid air. The Federal Aviation Administration now requires spare rechargeable lithium batteries be transported in carry-on baggage. If a fire from a cell phone or laptop battery starts on board, the FAA has advised flight attendants to use water or soda to extinguish it, though a foam extinguisher or dry chemical fire extinguisher can also be used.

8. IT'S USED TO TREAT MENTAL ILLNESSES …

Lithium has been used for more than a century to treat bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses, including depression, schizophrenia, and eating disorders. It's also used to treat anemia, headaches, alcoholism, epilepsy, and diabetes. But there's a narrow difference between the dose at which it's effective and the one at which it is lethal.

"It's not that people don't know what lithium does in general, the problem is that it does too many things," says Evan Snyder, a professor in the human genetics program with Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, who studied the disorder as part of research on defects that involve more than one abnormal gene. He likens prescribing lithium to using a sledgehammer on a nail; there's a lot of collateral damage. "What we'd like is a very tiny, mini hammer just to precisely hit exactly what it is that lithium is doing," he tells Mental Floss.

But first, scientists needed to know which nail to swing for, and for that, Snyder studied lithium's affects in the brain. Research Snyder published in 2017 details how the drug works to regulate connections in the brain's nerve cells. Now, he says, that effect can be compared with other drugs to search for a more targeted treatment; right now, it works on only one out of every three patients.

9. … BUT THERE CAN BE LONG-TERM SIDE EFFECTS.

At age 17, Jaime Lowe believed her parents were secret agents, saw the Muppets heckling her, and thought she could converse with Michael Jackson and follow secret tunnels to Neverland. She was soon diagnosed as bipolar, and daily doses of lithium stabilized the manic episodes; without it, as she wrote in a New York Times essay about her life on the drug, she'd be "riding on top of subway cars measuring speed and looking for light in elevated realms." About one-third of people with bipolar disorder see their symptoms relieved by lithium.

But that can come at a price. Lithium's side effects include weight gain, nausea, and the exacerbation of heart and kidney disease. In Lowe's case, after 20 years of taking the drug, she began to have spiking blood pressure and other signs of kidney failure. Her doctor gave her a choice between switching off the drug that had given her a functional life—or getting a kidney transplant. She chronicles the experience—and her trip to Bolivia to hike the salt flats where lithium is mined—in her 2017 book Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind.

10. LITHIUM WAS ONCE A KEY INGREDIENT IN 7 UP.

7 Up ad featuring family in 1948 issue of Ladies' Home Journal magazine
Internet Archive, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions

Before "7 Up" became its name and holiday party punchbowls everywhere became its prime target, the soft drink, which debuted in 1929, was briefly called "Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda," and its original ingredients included lithium citrate. To make its product stand out in a sea of 600 lemon-lime soft drinks already on the market, Cadbury Beverages North America touted the supposedly positive health effects of the lithium in the soda, which was released just weeks before the 1929 stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression. Apparently the recipe had some appeal: In the 1940s: 7 Up was the third best-selling soft drink in the world, according to Cadbury. (Look how happy the family above seems in this ad from the March 1948 issue of The Ladies' Home Journal.) Lithium was included in its recipe until 1950.

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10 Quick Facts About Cobalt
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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.

Cobalt hides out in everyday objects and happenings around us, from batteries and blue paint to medical procedures. We've used it for millennia, even before the common era, but it didn't get proper credit until the 18th century. With its 27 protons, cobalt is sandwiched between iron and nickel in the middle portion of the periodic table with the other "transition" metals, which bridge the main group elements located on either side. Here are ten curious facts about this element.

1. PURE COBALT DOES NOT NATURALLY EXIST ON EARTH.

Though you can find cobalt just about everywhere—in the soil, in mineral deposits, and even in crusts on the seafloor—it's always combined with other elements like nickel, copper, iron, or arsenic, such as in the bright crimson arsenate mineral erythrite. It's usually collected as a byproduct of mining for other metals—especially nickel and copper—and, once purified, is a burnished gray color.

2. COBALT MAY NOT BE RARE, BUT IT IS VALUABLE.

Despite being relatively common, it's considered a critical raw material by the European Union because there are few places where it's abundant enough to be mined in larger quantities. The only mine in the world where it's the primary product is in Morocco.

3. COBALT WAS NAMED AFTER SUBTERRANEAN GERMAN GOBLINS.

Centuries ago, miners in the mountains of Germany had a great deal of trouble trying to melt down certain ores for useful metals like silver and copper, and even dealt with poisonous fumes released from the rock, which could make them very sick or even kill them. They blamed the kobolds—pesky, underground sprites of local folklore (and more recently, the name of a Dungeons & Dragons species). Though the vapors actually arose from the arsenic also contained in the ores, when chemists later extracted cobalt from these minerals, the name stuck.

4. COBALT WAS FINALLY ISOLATED IN THE 18TH CENTURY.

It was not until the 1730s that Swedish chemist George Brandt purified and identified cobalt from arsenic-containing ores, then another 50 years until Torbern Bergman, another Swede, verified Brandt's new element. It is worth noting, though, that at the time the elements were simply in an incomplete list and had not been organized into a meaningful table.

5. COBALT IS BEST KNOWN FOR CREATING A RICH BLUE HUE…

People have been using cobalt-containing pigments to get that rich blue hue as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE, when Persians used them to color their necklace beads. From Egypt to China, artisans created blue glass from cobalt compounds for thousands of years. The color was long attributed to the element bismuth, depriving cobalt of pigment fame. 

6. … BUT COBALT MAKES OTHER COLORS TOO.

The famed "cobalt blue" is actually the result of the compound cobalt aluminate. Cobalt in other chemical combinations can also make a variety of other colors. Cobalt phosphate is used to make a violet pigment, and cobalt green is achieved by combining cobalt oxides with zinc oxides.

7. TODAY WE USE COBALT TO MAKE POWERFUL MAGNETS AND "SUPERALLOYS."

Cobalt is one of the few elements that are ferromagnetic, which means it can become magnetized when exposed to an external magnetic field. Cobalt remains magnetic at extremely high temperatures, making it very useful for the specialized magnets in generators and hard drives. When mixed with the right metals, cobalt can also help create materials called "superalloys" that keep their strength under huge stress and high temperatures—advantageous, for instance, in a jet engine. Most people, however, can find cobalt hiding closer to home, inside some rechargeable batteries.

8. COBALT COULD ONE DAY REPLACE PRECIOUS METALS IN INDUSTRY.

Scientists such as chemist Patrick Holland at Yale University are looking at ways to use cobalt in place of the more rare and expensive metals often used in industrial catalysts. These catalysts—chemical "helpers" that speed up reactions—are used in making adhesives, lubricants, or pharmaceutical precursors, for instance. Precious metals like platinum and iridium often make good catalysts, but they are also pricey, can be toxic to humans, and, as precious implies, are not abundant. There is a "big upswing in people looking at iron, nickel, and cobalt because of their price," Holland tells Mental Floss.

All three could be viable options in the future. The challenge, Holland says, is "walking the tightrope" between creating an effective, reactive catalyst and one that is too reactive or overly sensitive to impurities.

9. COBALT HAS MULTIPLE ROLES IN MODERN MEDICINE.

The metal perches in the middle of the impressively complex molecule vitamin B12—a.k.a. cobalamin—which is involved in making red blood cells and DNA, and helps keep your nervous system healthy. Cobalt also lends an extra distinction to B12: It's the only vitamin that contains a metal atom.

To measure B12 intake in patients, doctors use a "labeled" version of B12 in which the cobalt atom is replaced with a radioactive cobalt isotope. Oncologists and technicians also use the radiation from cobalt isotopes in some cancer therapies as well as to sterilize medical and surgical tools. These days, cobalt alloys are even found in artificial hip joints and knees.

10. COBALT WAS ONCE ADDED TO BEER—WITH DEADLY CONSEQUENCES.

In the 1960s, some breweries added cobalt chloride to their beers because it helped maintain the appealing foam that builds when beer is poured. By 1967, more than 100 heavy beer drinkers in Quebec City, Minneapolis, Omaha, and Belgium had suffered heart failure, and nearly half of them died. At the time, doctors were also administering cobalt to patients for medical reasons without causing this severe effect, so the blame couldn't lie with the metal alone. After studying the remains of the deceased, scientists proposed that the so-called "cobalt-beer cardiomyopathy" had been caused by an unhealthy mélange of cobalt, high alcohol intake, and poor diet. The FDA banned the use of cobalt chloride as a food additive shortly after. 

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