AskDefine | Define uranium

Dictionary Definition

uranium n : a heavy toxic silvery-white radioactive metallic element; occurs in many isotopes; used for nuclear fuels and nuclear weapons [syn: U, atomic number 92]

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. The element with atomic number 92 and symbol U.


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For etymology and more information refer to: (A lot of the translations were taken from that site with permission from the author)

Extensive Definition

Uranium () is a silver-gray metallic chemical element in the actinide series of the periodic table that has the symbol U and atomic number 92. It has 92 protons and electrons, 6 of them valence electrons. It can have between 141 and 146 neutrons, with 143 and 146 in its most common isotopes. Uranium has the highest atomic weight of the naturally occurring elements. Uranium is approximately 70% more dense than lead and is weakly radioactive. It occurs naturally in low concentrations (a few parts per million) in soil, rock and water, and is commercially extracted from uranium-bearing minerals such as uraninite (see uranium mining).
In nature, uranium atoms exist as uranium-238 (99.284%), uranium-235 (0.711%), and a very small amount of uranium-234 (0.0058%). Uranium decays slowly by emitting an alpha particle. The half-life of uranium-238 is about 4.47 billion years and that of uranium-235 is 704 million years, making them useful in dating the age of the Earth (see uranium-thorium dating, uranium-lead dating and uranium-uranium dating). Many contemporary uses of uranium exploit its unique nuclear properties. Uranium-235 has the distinction of being the only naturally occurring fissile isotope. Uranium-238 is both fissionable by fast neutrons, and fertile (capable of being transmuted to fissile plutonium-239 in a nuclear reactor). An artificial fissile isotope, uranium-233, can be produced from natural thorium and is also important in nuclear technology. While uranium-238 has a small probability to fission spontaneously or when bombarded with fast neutrons, the much higher probability of uranium-235 and to a lesser degree uranium-233 to fission when bombarded with slow neutrons generates the heat in nuclear reactors used as a source of power, and provides the fissile material for nuclear weapons. Both uses rely on the ability of uranium to produce a sustained nuclear chain reaction. Depleted uranium (uranium-238) is used in kinetic energy penetrators and armor plating.
Uranium is used as a colorant in uranium glass, producing orange-red to lemon yellow hues. It was also used for tinting and shading in early photography. The 1789 discovery of uranium in the mineral pitchblende is credited to Martin Heinrich Klaproth, who named the new element after the planet Uranus. Eugène-Melchior Péligot was the first person to isolate the metal, and its radioactive properties were uncovered in 1896 by Antoine Becquerel. Research by Enrico Fermi and others starting in 1934 led to its use as a fuel in the nuclear power industry and in Little Boy, the first nuclear weapon used in war. An ensuing arms race during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union produced tens of thousands of nuclear weapons that used enriched uranium and uranium-derived plutonium. The security of those weapons and their fissile material following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 is a concern for public health and safety.


When refined, uranium is a silvery white, weakly radioactive metal, which is slightly softer than steel, strongly electropositive and a poor electrical conductor. Hydrochloric and nitric acids dissolve uranium, but nonoxidizing acids attack the element very slowly. The first atomic bomb worked by this principle (nuclear fission).



The major application of uranium in the military sector is in high-density penetrators. This ammunition consists of depleted uranium (DU) alloyed with 1–2% other elements. At high impact speed, the density, hardness, and flammability of the projectile enable destruction of heavily armored targets. Tank armor and the removable armor on combat vehicles are also hardened with depleted uranium (DU) plates. The use of DU became a contentious political-environmental issue after the use of DU munitions by the US, UK and other countries during wars in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans raised questions of uranium compounds left in the soil (see Gulf War Syndrome). Counter to popular belief, the main risk of exposure to DU is chemical poisoning by uranium oxide rather than radioactivity (uranium being only a weak alpha emitter).
During the later stages of World War II, the entire Cold War, and to a much lesser extent afterwards, uranium was used as the fissile explosive material to produce nuclear weapons. Two major types of fission bombs were built: a relatively simple device that uses uranium-235 and a more complicated mechanism that uses uranium-238-derived plutonium-239. Later, a much more complicated and far more powerful fusion bomb that uses a plutonium-based device in a uranium casing to cause a mixture of tritium and deuterium to undergo nuclear fusion was built.


The main use of uranium in the civilian sector is to fuel commercial nuclear power plants; by the time it is completely fissioned, one kilogram of uranium-235 can theoretically produce about 20 trillion joules of energy (20 joules); as much electricity as 1500 tonnes of coal. Yellow glass with 1% uranium oxide was found in a Roman villa on Cape Posillipo in the Bay of Naples, Italy by R. T. Gunther of the University of Oxford in 1912. Starting in the late Middle Ages, pitchblende was extracted from the Habsburg silver mines in Joachimsthal, Bohemia (now Jáchymov in the Czech Republic) and was used as a coloring agent in the local glassmaking industry. Klaproth mistakenly assumed the yellow substance was the oxide of a yet-undiscovered element and heated it with charcoal to obtain a black powder, which he thought was the newly discovered metal itself (in fact, that powder was an oxide of uranium). He named the newly discovered element after the planet Uranus, which had been discovered eight years earlier by William Herschel.
In 1841, Eugène-Melchior Péligot, who was Professor of Analytical Chemistry at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (Central School of Arts and Manufactures) in Paris, isolated the first sample of uranium metal by heating uranium tetrachloride with potassium. The experiments leading to the discovery of uranium's ability to fission (break apart) into lighter elements and release binding energy were conducted by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in Hahn's laboratory in Berlin. Lise Meitner and her nephew, physicist Otto Robert Frisch, published the physical explanation in February 1939 and named the process 'nuclear fission'. Soon after, Fermi hypothesized that the fission of uranium might release enough neutrons to sustain a fission reaction. Confirmation of this hypothesis came in 1939, and later work found that on average about 2 1/2 neutrons are released by each fission of the rare uranium isotope uranium-235. The world's first commercial scale nuclear power station, Obninsk in the Soviet Union, began generation with its reactor AM-1 on 27 June 1954. Other early nuclear power plants were Calder Hall in England which began generation on 17 October 1956 and the Shippingport Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania which began on 26 May 1958. Nuclear power was used for the first time for propulsion by a submarine, the USS Nautilus, in 1954. This is high enough to permit a sustained nuclear fission chain reaction to occur, providing other conditions are right. The ability of the surrounding sediment to contain the nuclear waste products in less than ideal conditions has been cited by the U.S. federal government as evidence of their claim that the Yucca Mountain facility could safely be a repository of waste for the nuclear power industry.
Above-ground nuclear tests by the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1950s and early 1960s and by France into the 1970s and 1980s Additional fallout and pollution occurred from several nuclear accidents.
The Windscale fire at the Sellafield nuclear plant in 1957 spread iodine-131, a short lived radioactive isotope, over much of Northern England.
The Three Mile Island accident in 1979 released a small amount of iodine-131. The amounts released by the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island power plant were minimal, and an environmental survey only found trace amounts in a few field mice dwelling nearby. As I-131 has a half life of slightly more than eight days, any danger posed by the radioactive material has long since passed for both of these incidents.
The Chernobyl disaster in 1986, however, was a complete core breach meltdown and partial detonation of the reactor, which ejected iodine-131 and strontium-90 over a large area of Europe. The 28 year half-life of strontium-90 means that only recently has some of the surrounding countryside around the reactor been deemed safe enough to be habitable. The decay of uranium, thorium and potassium-40 in the Earth's mantle is thought to be the main source of heat that keeps the outer core liquid and drives mantle convection, which in turn drives plate tectonics.
Its average concentration in the Earth's crust is (depending on the reference) 2 to 4 parts per million, Citrobacter species absorb uranyl ions when given glycerol phosphate (or other similar organic phosphates). After one day, one gram of bacteria will encrust themselves with nine grams of uranyl phosphate crystals; this creates the possibility that these organisms could be used in bioremediation to decontaminate uranium-polluted water.
Plants absorb some uranium from the soil they are rooted in. Dry weight concentrations of uranium in plants range from 5 to 60 parts per billion, and ash from burnt wood can have concentrations up to 4 parts per million. High-grade ores found in Athabasca Basin deposits in Saskatchewan, Canada can contain up to 70% uranium oxides, and therefore must be diluted with waste rock prior to milling, as the undilute stockpiled ore could become critical and start a nuclear reaction. Uranium ore is crushed and rendered into a fine powder and then leached with either an acid or alkali. The leachate is then subjected to one of several sequences of precipitation, solvent extraction, and ion exchange. The resulting mixture, called yellowcake, contains at least 75% uranium oxides. Yellowcake is then calcined to remove impurities from the milling process prior to refining and conversion.
Commercial-grade uranium can be produced through the reduction of uranium halides with alkali or alkaline earth metals.
Exploration for uranium is continuing to increase with US$200 million being spent world wide in 2005, a 54% increase on the previous year. and the world's largest single uranium deposit, located at the Olympic Dam Mine in South Australia. Almost all of the uranium production is exported, under strict International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards against use in nuclear weapons.
The largest single source of uranium ore in the United States was the Colorado Plateau located in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. The U.S. federal government paid discovery bonuses and guaranteed purchase prices to anyone who found and delivered uranium ore, and was the sole legal purchaser of the uranium. The economic incentives resulted in a frenzy of exploration and mining activity throughout the Colorado Plateau from 1947 through 1959 that left thousands of miles of crudely graded roads spider-webbing the remote deserts of the Colorado Plateau, and thousands of abandoned uranium mines, exploratory shafts, and tailings piles. The frenzy ended as suddenly as it had begun, when the U.S. government stopped purchasing the uranium.


In 2005, seventeen countries produced concentrated uranium oxides, with Canada (27.9% of world production) and Australia (22.8%) being the largest producers and Kazakhstan (10.5%), Russia (8.0%), Namibia (7.5%), Niger (7.4%), Uzbekistan (5.5%), the United States (2.5%), Ukraine (1.9%) and China (1.7%) also producing significant amounts. The ultimate supply of uranium is believed to be very large and sufficient for at least the next 85 years although some studies indicate underinvestment in the late twentieth century may produce supply problems in the 21st century.
Some claim that production of uranium will peak similar to peak oil. Kenneth S. Deffeyes and Ian D. MacGregor point out that uranium deposits seem to be log-normal distributed. There is a 300-fold increase in the amount of uranium recoverable for each tenfold decrease in ore grade." In another words, there is very little high grade ore and proportionately much more low grade ore.


Oxidation states and oxides


The interactions of carbonate anions with uranium(VI) cause the Pourbaix diagram to change greatly when the medium is changed from water to a carbonate containing solution. It is interesting to note that while the vast majority of carbonates are insoluble in water (students are often taught that all carbonates other than those of alkali metals are insoluble in water), uranium carbonates are often soluble in water. This is due to the fact that a U(VI) cation is able to bind two terminal oxides and three or more carbonates to form anionic complexes.
The fraction digrams explain this further, it can be seen that when the pH of a uranium(VI) solution is increased that the uranium is converted to a hydrated uranium oxide hydroxide and then at high pHs to an anionic hydroxide complex.



Full reference information for multi-page works cited
  • Nature's Building Blocks: An A to Z Guide to the Elements
  • The Encyclopedia of the Chemical Elements
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uranium in Swahili (macrolanguage): Urani
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uranium in Latin: Uranium
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uranium in Luxembourgish: Uran
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uranium in Lojban: jinmrvurani
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uranium in Simple English: Uranium
uranium in Slovak: Urán (prvok)
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uranium in Vietnamese: Urani
uranium in Turkish: Uranyum
uranium in Ukrainian: Уран (хімічний елемент)
uranium in Contenese: 鈾
uranium in Chinese: 鈾
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