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Chapter 13: Uranium and the UDC

...Watson delved into the fascinating world of uranium, uncovering its radioactive properties and intricate decay chain...

Uranium, symbolized by U in the periodic table, is an intriguing naturally occurring element with atomic number 92. It has a fascinating history and plays a significant role in our lives. Let's delve into the world of uranium and explore its properties, applications, and the captivating process of its radioactive decay chain.

Discovered in 1789 by the German chemist Martin Klaproth, uranium has been known to humanity for centuries. It was initially utilized to add vibrant colors to ceramic glazes as early as 79 A.D. However, its true potential was unveiled in 1896 when French physicist Henri Becquerel discovered its radioactive nature. Through his groundbreaking work, Becquerel laid the foundation for our understanding of radioactivity.

Uranium is found in trace amounts in rocks, soil, water, plants, and even animals, including humans. It occurs naturally in virtually all rock, soil, and water sources. Certain substances like phosphate rock deposits and uranium-rich ores contain significant concentrations of this element. Interestingly, due to its incredibly long half-life of 4.47 billion years for U-238, the total amount of uranium on Earth remains relatively stable.

In its refined form, uranium is a silvery white, weakly radioactive metal with remarkable density, surpassing that of lead by 65%. It can be chemically converted into various usable forms, such as uranium dioxide, to serve industrial purposes. Naturally occurring uranium consists of three isotopes: U-238, U-235, and U-234, all of which are radioactive. The relative abundance and half-lives of these isotopes are shown in the table below:

Isotope Natural Abundance (%) Half-life (years)

U-238 99.27 4.47 billion

U-235 0.72 700 million

U-234 0.0055 246,000

To enhance specific isotopes' concentration, uranium isotopes can be separated through a process called "enrichment." This enrichment produces uranium with increased U-235, which is valuable for nuclear power reactors and the production of nuclear weapons. Conversely, the process also yields depleted uranium (DU), which is almost pure U-238 and finds applications in military equipment, such as shielding for Army tanks and components of bullets and missiles.

The utilization of uranium extends beyond military applications. In the civilian sector, uranium plays a pivotal role in fueling commercial nuclear power plants. The fuel used in these reactors is typically enriched to contain 2-3% U-235. Additionally, depleted uranium finds application as counterweights in helicopters and airplanes. It is also used in various fields, such as ceramic glazes, lighting fixtures, photographic chemicals, and even in certain phosphate fertilizers.

Uranium's radioactive nature raises questions about its impact on human health and the environment. Uranium is naturally present in soil, rocks, and water, and its distribution is influenced by natural processes like wind, rain, and geology. However, human activities, such as mining, refining, and nuclear fuel production, can release uranium into the environment. Inhalation of uranium dust, ingestion of contaminated food or water, or, under rare circumstances, absorption through cuts in the skin can result in human exposure to uranium.

When uranium undergoes radioactive decay, it releases alpha particles accompanied by weak gamma radiation. This decay process leads to the formation of a series of decay products, known as the uranium decay chain. One of the prominent radionuclides in this chain is radon-222. Radon is a gas that can infiltrate the air we breathe, particularly in homes with foundations in contact with uranium-rich soil or rock. It poses health risks, including lung cancer, as its short-lived decay products

Uranium Decay Chain
Uranium Decay Chain

Holmes and Watson know about Uranium and the UDC
Watson studies uranium and the UDC

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