Sunday, September 5, 2010


Plutonium is a synthetic transuranic radioactive chemical element with the chemical symbol Pu and atomic number 94. It is an actinide metal of silvery-white appearance that tarnishes when exposed to air, forming a dull coating when oxidized. The element normally exhibits six allotropes and four oxidation states. It reacts with carbon, halogens, nitrogen and silicon. When exposed to moist air, it forms oxides and hydrides that expand the sample up to 70% in volume, which in turn flake off as a powder that can spontaneously ignite. It is also a radioactive poison that accumulates in bone marrow. These and other properties make the handling of plutonium dangerous.

The most important isotope of plutonium is plutonium-239, with a half-life of 24,100 years. Plutonium-239 and 241 are fissile, meaning the nuclei of their atoms can break apart by being bombarded by slow moving thermal neutrons, releasing energy, gamma radiation and more neutrons. It can therefore sustain a nuclear chain reaction, leading to applications in nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors. Plutonium is the heaviest naturally-occurring or primordial element; the most stable isotope of plutonium is plutonium-244, with a half-life of about 80 million years, long enough to be found in trace quantities in nature. Plutonium-238 has a half-life of 88 years and emits alpha particles. It is a heat source in radioisotope thermoelectric generators, which are used to power some spacecraft. Plutonium-240 has a high rate of spontaneous fission, raising the neutron flux of any sample it is contained in. The presence of plutonium-240 effectively limits a sample's weapon potential and determines its grade.

Plutonium was first synthesized in 1940 by a team led by Glenn T. Seaborg and Edwin McMillan at the University of California, Berkeley laboratory by bombarding uranium-238 with deuterons. McMillan named the new element after Pluto, and Seaborg suggested the symbol Pu as a joke. Trace amounts of plutonium were subsequently discovered in nature. Discovery of plutonium became a classified part of the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb during World War II.

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