What is Uranium?

Uranium is a naturally occurring, mildly radioactive element. On the Periodic Table of Elements, you can find it under the symbol “U” and the atomic number 92. In nature, it takes the form of a dense silvery-white metal.

Who discovered Uranium?

The element was recognized in 1789 by Martin Klaproth, a German chemist, when he was analyzing mineral samples from the silver mines in the present day Czech Republic. He named the element after Uranus, the seventh plant in our solar system.

Apart from its value to chemists, the only significant use for uranium throughout the 1800s was to color glass and ceramics. Uranium compounds were used to give vases and decorative glassware a yellow-green color. Ceramic glazes ranging from orange to bright red were used on items as varied as household crockery and architectural decorations.

Henri Becquerel first discovered uranium’s radioactive properties in 1896. The French physicist did not  realize the full significance of his discovery, but one of his students, Marie Curie, correctly interpreted his results and chose the name ‘radioactivity’ for the new phenomenon.

Learn more about radiation.

How is Uranium used?

Nuclear energy plants use uranium to generate heat and boil water into steam. Uranium has the largest atoms of the naturally occurring elements on Earth, making it more likely than other atoms to split.

When subatomic particles called neutrons come into contact with uranium atoms, the atoms split, releasing heat energy. This occurs all the time in nature, but at a very slow rate. Most nuclear energy plants use Uranium-235, a specific form of uranium.

Nuclear reactors are able to greatly speed up this process by slowing down the neutrons and increasing the likelihood that they will hit and split the uranium atoms. When uranium atoms split they also release more neutrons which can then go on and split additional atoms ensuring a “chain reaction” of atom splitting. This is called nuclear fission.

Due to the nature of the nuclear fission process, nuclear energy plants do not ‘burn’ any fuels. Therefore, they produce virtually no ‘smog’ or greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).

In addition to energy generation, uranium has a number of other uses.

Uranium-238, also called depleted uranium, is a hard, dense material that actually serves as an effective shield against radioactivity. It can be found in aircraft and medical equipment as a shield for radiation-generating devices.

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