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Polonium Facts: Learn About This Highly Radioactive Metal

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Polonium is one of the rarest elements found naturally on Earth.

It was first discovered by Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie. Polonium is named after Poland, which is the birthplace of Marie Curie.

Polonium is part of the chalcogen family in group 16 of the periodic table. It is known for its high radioactive nature, which is used to generate alpha particles for industrial uses and research works. It has an atomic weight of 210 and an atomic number of 84. It is a silver-gray or blackish-colored rare metal found typically within the ores of uranium. A total of 33 isotopes of polonium are known to us, all of which are radioactive elements. Among these, Po-210 is the most common isotope, which comes with a half-life of only 138 days. It has a density of 0.3 oz per 3.5 cubic ft (9.32 grams per cubic cm) and is solid at room temperature.

Polonium is very rare to be found naturally in the Earth's crust and can be extracted from the ores of uranium. However, it is a very expensive process, and therefore, it is not done extensively. Instead, it is obtained by a process known as beta decay, which includes the radioactive decay of bismuth-209 in the nuclear reactors. This stable isotope of bismuth gives off bismuth-210, which then produces polonium. It is also found naturally in rocks in very minute quantities and in lichens, which can absorb it directly from the atmosphere.

As it is highly radioactive in nature, it is deemed a perfect ingredient for making atomic bombs. In fact, it was used to make a large number of atomic bombs during the Second World War. Polonium is considered to be extremely toxic and can be life-threatening if accidentally inhaled or ingested. Therefore, while handling polonium in research works or in industrial uses, it should be sealed properly and kept away from skin contact. Although it cannot penetrate the skin as the energy of alpha particles decreases with distance, high exposure to it can cause various types of cancer.

Discovery Of Polonium

Marie Curie and Pierre Curie discovered polonium, which was the first element they discovered in the year 1898 in Paris. After years of hard work, they extracted polonium from uranium ore pitchblende.

They noticed that pitchblende, when unrefined was far more radioactive than after extracting uranium from it. This caused them to think that there must be another element in pitchblende that is making it more radioactive. Therefore, they purchased tons of pitchblende so that they could successfully separate the minerals from it. After months of experimenting and hard work, Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie found an element 400 times more radioactive than other radioactive elements, including uranium in pitchblende. Extracting polonium from uranium ore was extremely difficult since only 100 micrograms of polonium are present in a ton of uranium ore. But this could not stop the Curies from isolating it, which is now denoted as polonium-209, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry findings.

When it comes to the sources of polonium, it is a very rare element to be found naturally in the Earth's crust. It can be found in air and soil in very minute quantities. Po-210 is generally obtained by the radioactive decay of radium, which is obtained from the radioactive element uranium. Uranium is available in almost all rocks. Lichens can absorb polonium straight from the atmosphere, and this results in higher concentrations of polonium in the blood of reindeer in the northern regions as they consume these lichens. People eating these reindeer can also get traces of polonium in their blood.

Extracting polonium from uranium ore is quite expensive and is not processed at a large scale. Instead, it is obtained from the radioactive decay of bismuth-209 in nuclear reactors. This stable isotope of bismuth gives off bismuth-210, which then produces polonium by a process called beta decay.

Uses Of Polonium

Due to its high radioactivity, polonium finds limited uses for commercial as well as industrial purposes. In fact, an estimation by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission states that polonium-210 is produced only about 3.5 oz (100 g) worldwide every year.

The limited uses of this element include the elimination of static electricity from various types of machinery and the removal of dust from photographic film. While performing these activities, it must be kept in mind that polonium should be properly sealed and kept away from the contact of the user.

Atomic bombs were made from polonium and beryllium (a rare element) during World War 2. Polonium is also used as a heat source in spacecraft and for thermoelectric power in satellites. This is because polonium decays at a high rate, and while doing so, it liberates a large number of alpha particles that generate high heat energy. In fact, only 0.03 oz (1 g) of polonium generates a temperature of 932°F (500°C), according to the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Importance Of Polonium

Polonium is a highly volatile metal known for its radioactivity. It is important because of its alpha-emitting capability, which is used in some commercial and research activities.

Since it is a great alpha emitter, polonium and its isotope elements are used to make lightweight heat sources used in thermoelectric power for space satellites and other space equipment pieces. It is also used to remove dust from photographic film and static electricity from parts of machinery.

Polonium was used to make atomic bombs during World War 2 by the Manhattan project. In this, polonium was used with beryllium, which is an absorber of alpha particles and a neutron emitter. The discovery of polonium is extremely important because it changed our understanding of radioactivity and its use in the fields of medicine.

Polonium is a great source of alpha particles.

Characteristics And Features

Polonium is a highly radioactive element with a boiling point of 1763.6°F (962°C) and a melting point of 489°F (254°C). Its chemical symbol is Po, as written in the periodic table, and its atomic number is 84, which is the total number of protons in its atomic nucleus. The nucleus contains protons and neutrons. Electrons are equal in number to protons. It has an atomic weight of 210.

Other physical properties of polonium include the decrease of its electrical conductivity with increasing temperature and its density of 0.3 oz per 3.5 cubic ft (9.32 g per cubic cm). It is a solid metal at room temperature, and Po-210 is its most common isotope, which has a half-life of 138 days. There are a total of 33 isotopes of polonium that are known till now. These are highly radioactive elements and are perfect ingredients for making atomic bombs. None of these isotopes are stable.

Polonium lies in group 16 and period 6 of the periodic table and is the heaviest metal of the oxygen family or the chalcogens. It is a silver-gray or blackish-colored rare metal found typically within the ores of uranium. Polonium and its unstable isotopes are extremely harmful elements. They can lead to chemical toxicity and prove to be fatal if ingested or inhaled. Exposure to polonium and its isotopes can also cause skin cancer.

This metal readily reacts with dilute acids. However, in the case of alkalis, it is slightly reactive. Polonium-210 emits a bluish glow because the air surrounding it is excited by its decaying alpha particles. This energy released by it is very high and is, therefore, used as a natural heat source in spacecraft equipment.


What is polonium used for today?

Therefore, polonium is the source of alpha particles and is an alpha emitter. It is used for various research purposes and in antistatic devices. It is also used to form alloys by mixing them with other metals like beryllium, which is a good source of neutrons. Polonium is used to make the source of heat required in space equipment since 0.03 oz (1 g) of polonium can produce a temperature of 932°F (500°C) because of alpha radiation.

What are the five uses of polonium?

The five uses of polonium are:

Polonium is used as an alpha emitter.

It is used in antistatic devices and in removing dust from photographic film.

Alloys are made with polonium.

Polonium, when mixed with beryllium, gives neutrons.

Due to the high heat generation as a result of alpha emission, polonium is used as a heat source in space equipment.

Where is polonium found on Earth?

Polonium is a very rare element and is found in uranium oxide. However, it is extremely expensive to obtain it from uranium ores. Polonium is, therefore, obtained from the nuclear reactor involving the bombarding and decay of bismuth 209.

What happens if you touch polonium?

Polonium cannot penetrate the skin as most of the alpha particles lose their energy after moving through a few centimeters. However, high exposure to polonium radiation can cause acute radiation sickness (ARS) and skin burns.

What is the freezing point of polonium?

The freezing point of Polonium is 489°F (254°C).

What color is polonium?

Polonium is silver-gray or metallic black in color.

Written By
Kidadl Team

The Kidadl Team is made up of people from different walks of life, from different families and backgrounds, each with unique experiences and nuggets of wisdom to share with you. From lino cutting to surfing to children’s mental health, their hobbies and interests range far and wide. They are passionate about turning your everyday moments into memories and bringing you inspiring ideas to have fun with your family.

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