Atomic Number: 92
Atomic Symbol: U
Atomic Weight: 238.029
Electron Configuration: 2-8-18-32-21-9-2
(Planet Uranus) Yellow-colored glass, containing more than 1% uranium oxide and dating back to 79 A.D., has been found near Naples, Italy. Klaproth recognized an unknown element in pitchblende and attempted to isolate the metal in 1789.
The metal apparently was first isolated in 1841 by Peligot, who reduced the anhydrous chloride with potassium.
Uranium, not as rare as once thought, is now considered to be more plentiful than mercury, antimony, silver, or cadmium, and is about as abundant as molybdenum or arsenic. It occurs in numerous minerals such as pitchblende, uraninite, carnotite, autunite, uranophane, and tobernite. It is also found in phosphate rock, lignite, monazite sands, and can be recovered commercially from these sources.
The United States Department of Energy purchases uranium in the form of acceptable U3O8 concentrates. This incentive program has greatly increased the known uranium reserves.
Uranium can be prepared by reducing uranium halides with alkali or alkaline earth metals or by reducing uranium oxides by calcium, aluminum, or carbon at high temperatures. The metal can also be produced by electrolysis of KUF5 or UF4, dissolved in a molten mixture of CaCl2 and NaCl. High-purity uranium can be prepared by the thermal decomposition of uranium halides on a hot filament.
Uranium is of great importance as a nuclear fuel. 238U can be converted into fissionable plutonium by the following reactions: 238U(n, gamma) --> 239U --(beta)--> 239Np --(beta)--> 239Pu. This nuclear conversion can be brought about in breeder reactors where it is possible to produce more new fissionable material than the fissionable material used in maintaining the chain reaction.
235U is of even greater importance because it is the key to utilizing uranium. 235U, while occuring in natural uranium to the extent of only 0.71%, is so fissionable with slow neutrons that a self-sustaining fission chain reaction can be made in a reactor constructed from natural uranium and a suitable moderator, such as heavy water or graphite, alone.
235U can be concentrated by gaseous diffusion and other physical processes, if desired, and used directly as a nuclear fuel, instead of natural uranium, or used as an explosive.
Natural uranium, slightly enriched with 235U by a small percentage, is used to fuel nuclear power reactors to generate electricity. Natural thorium can be irradiated with neutrons as follows to produce the important isotope 233U: 232Th(n, gamma)--> 233Th --(beta)--> 233Pa --(beta)--> 233U. While thorium itself is not fissionable, 233U is, and in this way may be used as a nuclear fuel. One pound of completely fissioned uranium has the fuel value of over 1500 tons of coal.
The uses of nuclear fuels to generate electrical power, to make isotopes for peaceful purposes, and to make explosives are well known. The estimated world-wide capacity of the 429 nuclear power reactors in operation in January 1990 amounted to about 311,000 megawatts.
Uranium in the U.S.A. is controlled by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. New uses are being found for depleted uranium, ie., uranium with the percentage of 235U lowered to about 0.2%.
Uranium is used in inertial guidance devices, in gyro compasses, as counterweights for aircraft control surfaces, as ballast for missile reentry vehicles, and as a shielding material. Uranium metal is used for X-ray targets for production of high-energy X-rays; the nitrate has been used as a photographic toner, and the acetate is used in analytical chemistry.
Crystals of uranium nitrate are triboluminescent. Uranium salts have also been used for producing yellow "vaseline" glass and glazes. Uranium and its compounds are highly toxic, both from a chemical and radiological standpoint.
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