Perhaps one of the most potentially destructive inventions is the atomic bomb, and it relies heavily on the use of Uranium. However, this radioactive member of the periodic table functions in more capacities than just destruction.
Requires Some Digging
Though Uranium isn’t exactly rare, it’s not nearly as abundant as materials like Carbon or Hydrogen. It occurs naturally in low densities in rocks, soil, and water, but only at a few parts per million. Uranium mines can be found all over the world, in places like Canada, Russia, and Australia.
Uranium is ancient, formed more than 6 billion years ago when a star died, and is the 48th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. That means it’s about 40 times more abundant than silver, so although it’s not exactly common, it’s not quite precious in the sense of rarity either.
Uranium was first discovered in 1789 by a German chemist, though in reality he had actually discovered Uranium Dioxide. The elements’ radioactivity was uncovered more than a century later when a French physicist noticed that a Uranium sample appeared to be clouding up a photographic plate; he determined that the same was emitting some unseen rays.
A metal in its natural state, Uranium can be combined with Oxygen or Carbon to form a number of different compounds, but the intention is nearly always to create some sort of energy source. Solid Uranium Oxide, commonly referred to as Yellowcake, is generally the form in which it is sold before being enriched.
A Fueling Reaction
One of the only real civilian uses of Uranium is as a fuel source for nuclear power plants (though it used to be a popular choice as a pottery glaze). Uranium powers nuclear plants through a process called fission wherein a Uranium atom splits a moving neutron. In the process, additional neutrons are thrown off, causing more atoms to split in a process known as a fission chain reaction.
As this happens, energy is produced through heat. A surprisingly small amount of Uranium is required to produce a great deal of heat. Water and graphite are used to help moderate the fission occurring inside the reactors.
Of course, there have been instances in which nuclear plants proved unstable. One such occurrence famously took place in Chernobyl in the 1980s when several explosions left the core of the reactor exposed. However, this was largely a result of human error.
In addition to a fuel source, Uranium can be used as a counterweight because it is so heavy, or as an X-Ray target.
A Different Kind of Big Bang
Uranium is a critical component of the production of atomic bombs. Much in the same way that fission produces energy, it can produce deadly explosions. Nuclear engineers enrich uranium by separating out the non-reactive isotopes in order to make the reactions more efficient.
Where fission chain reaction is moderated in nuclear power plants, it is encouraged in weapons. A series of increasingly fast and powerful fissions are responsible for the incredibly destructive effects of nuclear weapons.
The byproduct of enriched Uranium is depleted Uranium, which is still a very heavy metal that can be used to make military-grade armor or bullets.
The Big Bad Element
Uranium has become a sort of boogie man across the world’s cultures, ever since the first atomic bomb was dropped during World War II. Now, some countries are policed for even possessing enriched Uranium, as it is viewed as an indication of nefarious intent.
Though its reactions often have major consequences, either positive or negative, it’s clear that Uranium has become an important tool in a number of global industries, and that won’t change soon.