Uranium Topics for Beginning Learners

What is Uranium?

Uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive chemical element found in the Earth’s crust in rocks and soil worldwide. It is also called uranium oxide, U3O8, or pitchblende.

What is Uranium Commonly Used For?

Uranium can be used as fuel for nuclear power generation and for nuclear weapons and other nuclear explosives.  

What is the Symbol for Uranium?


What is the Atomic Number for Uranium?


What is the Mass Number for Uranium?


What is the Isotopic Symbol for Uranium?


How Dangerous is Uranium?

Inhaling uranium is dangerous in large concentrations as it can cause lung cancer. Uranium is a toxic metal. Ingesting uranium can cause kidney damage.

Can you Touch Uranium?

In general, very low grade and unenriched uranium can be touched. Touching uranium that has been enriched to make fuel without proper protection is an absolute no.

Can Uranium Kill You?

There aren’t any known cases of humans dying from ingesting uranium. However, breathing in large quantities can cause lung cancer, and ingesting can cause poisioning.

What does Uranium Smell Like?

There isn’t a distiguishable smell to uranium.

Uranium Isotopes

There are many isotopes of Uranium, and they all have different properties. Some are more stable than others, and some decay faster, meaning that what we see today will not be what we see in the future.

Uranium 238 (U 238) is the most common form of Uranium on Earth because it has a half-life of about four billion years before decaying into lead over time. For this reason, scientists can use its radioactive emissions as clocks to measure changes in age or date things such as fossils with relative accuracy based on their depth underground found by geologists.

Uranium Facts

Uranium has the highest atomic weight of primordially occurring elements. Its density is about 70% higher than lead and slightly lower than gold or tungsten, making it a metal used for jewelry and fuel cores to produce nuclear energy.

It occurs naturally at low concentrations in soil, rock, and water but can also be extracted from uranium-bearing minerals.

Uranium decays slowly by emitting an alpha particle that requires extremely sensitive equipment like Geiger counters to detect them because they emit so little detectable radiation compared with other radioactive materials like strontium 90 (Sr90).

Uranium is radioactive and has a half-life of 4.47 billion years, which means Uranium can be used to date the Earth’s age with accuracy.

Uranium needs enrichment before its ready for use in nuclear power plants or weapons because there are only tiny amounts found naturally on our planet. When used in power plants, enriched Uranium will last about 100 times longer than other fuel sources!

Uranium (U 238) is fissionable by fast neutrons, and it can transmute to plutonium-239 in a nuclear reactor.

Another isotope of Uranium used for power production is Uranium 233 (U 233), which we get from natural thorium.

The small probability of spontaneous fission makes this type dangerous if left unsupervised. Still, the high likelihood of induced or even faster reactions with slow neutrons types gives it an edge over other fuels as well, making them perfect for use in reactors.

The isotopes in Uranium maintain a sustained nuclear chain reaction. The nuclear chain reaction generates the heat for nuclear power reactors.

Depleted Uranium is used to create kinetic energy penetrators. These devices can penetrate armor plating due to their density without compromising speed or velocity when they strike an object. Depleted Uranium is also used as protective armor on military vehicles such as tanks because depleted Uranium can withstand high temperatures before melting as steel does under similar circumstances.

Uranium glass has been around since at least Roman times – we know this from archaeological evidence that shows jars containing lemon yellowish-green glaze (which was made with asbestos) dating back 2 thousand years ago!

Uranium Discovery

The 1789 discovery of Uranium in the mineral pitchblende is credited to Martin Heinrich Klaproth, who named it after a recently discovered planet.

Eugène-Melchior Péligot was the first person to isolate this metal. Its radioactive properties were later revealed by Henri Becquerel with research from Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, and Enrico Fermi starting in 1934, leading to its use as fuel for nuclear power plants.

The future of energy is nuclear! With the growth of these power plants, more and more countries are adopting this form of CO2-free electricity.

Unlike solar or wind power, which produce intermittent sources at a given location, nuclear reactors can be placed anywhere to provide consistent output for any centralized facility’s needs.

In 2019 there were 440 operational nuclear reactors worldwide that generated 2586 TWh (billion kWh) worth of clean, renewable fuel per year – enough to supply two billion residents with their yearly allowance each day without polluting our atmosphere!

Natural Uranium

Uranium is a silvery-white, weakly radioactive metal.

Its Mohs hardness of 6 makes it scratch glass comparable to other metals like titanium, rhodium, manganese, and niobium when refined.

It’s malleable, ductile but not electrically conductive. When solidified into uranium metal, its density reaches 19 g/cm3 making it denser than lead at 11g/cm3 but less dense than tungsten or gold, which are both found in the range of 18-19g/ccm.

Uranium reacts with almost all non-alloy elements (except for noble gases) and their compounds, but reactivity increases with temperature.

Hydrochloric acid or nitric acid dissolves Uranium while other acids attack it very slowly.

When finely divided and in contact with cold water surroundings, Uranium can begin reacting. When surrounded by hydrochloric acid or nitric acid, a dark layer coating on the surface of this element named uranium oxide is formed.

Uranium is extracted from ores and converted into chemicals used in industry.

Uranium is radioactive, and uranium 235 (U 235) was the first isotope that scientists found to be fissionable.

Uranium can absorb neutrons without splitting in two like other isotopes. Neutron absorption occurs if Uranium absorbs a lot at once because most of the time, when you bombard an atom with slow neutrons, that one will stay intact while releasing nuclear binding energy and more fast-moving neutron particles.

If too many loose or absorbed neutrons collide with atoms of uranium 235 (U 235), then they’ll trigger a chain reaction which results in heat or (in exceptional circumstances) an explosion!

Uses for Uranium

Nuclear reactors use a neutron poison to slow and control the chain reaction. Slowing the chain reaction is often accomplished by adding “control rods” containing solid materials, such as boron or cadmium, which can absorb neutrons without becoming radioactive.

They do not affect nuclear reactions directly, but they are used for reactor safety. Suppose too many of them are inserted into the core. In that case, there will be insufficient neutrons available to sustain fission, so an uncontrolled atomic explosion cannot occur (if this were possible at all).

A 15-pound quantity of uranium 235 (U 235) would suffice for building a bomb with relatively crude technology – for example, Little Boy was constructed from that small amount.

Military Uses for Uranium

The military sector found a new use for Uranium in the form of high-density penetrators that consist of depleted Uranium alloyed with 1–2% other elements.

This ammunition is used against heavily armored targets and has proven effective due to its density, hardness, and pyrophoricity.

Depleted Uranium

The use of depleted Uranium to harden tank armor and other removable vehicle armor became politically contentious after the U.S. used these munitions during wars in the Arab Gulf, Persian Gulf, and Balkans.

The toxic ore left a radioactive trail uncovered by military personnel without adequate protection who were tasked with removing spent ammunition from tanks or cleaning up nuclear spills at power plants that missiles had hit.

Depleted Uranium is also used as a shielding material in some containers used to store and transport radioactive materials.

While Uranium ore itself isn’t radioactive, its high density makes it more effective than lead in halting radiation from strong sources such as radium.

Other uses of depleted Uranium include:

  • Counterweights for aircraft control surfaces.
  • Ballasts for missile re-entry vehicles.
  • Shielding material.

Depleted Uranium is often found in guidance systems or gyroscopic compasses because of its dense nature that doesn’t affect accuracy like lighter metals would do at these speeds.

Depleted Uranium is the ideal metal for machining and casting due to its low cost, ease of construction, and ability to withstand high temperatures.

The risk from exposure comes primarily in chemical poisoning by depleted uranium oxide rather than radioactivity – although only a weak alpha emitter, it can cause extreme damage if inhaled or ingested through contact with skin.

In the later stages of World War II, the entire Cold War, and to a lesser extent afterward, uranium 235, was used as an explosive material.

Initially, the U.S. made two significant types of fission bombs. The first fission bomb is a relatively simple device that uses Uranium 235 and a more complicated fission bomb from plutonium 239 derived from radiation in natural sources like Uranium 238.

Later on, a much more complex type of bomb was created – A thermonuclear weapon, which relies on plutonium-based devices for nuclear fusion with tritium deuteride mixture.

Civilian Uses for Uranium

Uranium is used as a fuel in nuclear power plants. One kilogram of uranium 235 can theoretically produce about 20 terajoules worth of energy, equivalent to the energy produced from 1.5 million kilograms of coal.

Can you imagine a world where there is no such thing as “nuclear power”? What would we do? How could we function without nuclear energy to fuel our electricity and other resources that require this type of power.

Nuclear plants are typically powered by enriched Uranium. The enrichment process must enhance Uranium to a level of 3% or higher in alpha particles (uranium 235).

Many nuclear power reactor designs have been developed, but CANDU reactors and Magnox were the only types capable of using low enrichment levels from unenriched uranium fuels.

Breeder reactors also produce plutonium fragments through reactions with Uranium 238.

Before discovering radioactivity, Uranium was primarily used in small amounts for yellow glass and pottery glazes.

Uranium is also found in Fiestaware, which created a new market when tinting became famous thanks to Marie Curie’s discovery of radium inside pitchblende ore containing it.

When extracting this valuable radioactive metal from its surrounding rock with three tonnes needed to remove one gram, it left prodigious quantities as waste products that were then turned into an art supply by adding colors!

Uranium has been used in all sorts of fascinating ways – for example; uranium nitrate is often found as a toner for photography. Uranium was also the first agent to be discovered that could cause cancer when overexposed.

It can have interesting effects on dentures, too, such as making them more durable than they would typically be without its inclusion during manufacture due to how hard metal teeth are, so less likely to break or chip if overused.

The substance may even improve their appearance! It is also used as a toner in photographic chemicals and stains or dyes on leathers and woods.

The History of Natural Uranium

Roman potters used Uranium in its natural oxide form to add a yellow color to their ceramic glazes in ancient Rome. Yellow glass with 1% uranium oxide was discovered at an old villa on Cape Posillipo near Naples by R. T Gunther from Oxford University in 1912. Starting in the mid-14th century, Bohemia became famous for extracting pitchblende, which they used as a coloring agent when making local glassware that is still treasured worldwide.

In 79 CE, Romans were using Uranium ore found locally to make glowing colors out of clay pots. At the same time, modern-day archaeologists uncovered this same type of material centuries later en route towards discovering a long-lost civilization.

Who Discovered Uranium?

The discovery of the element is credited to the German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth. In 1789 while working in his experimental laboratory in Berlin, Klaproth precipitated a yellow compound (likely sodium diuranate) by dissolving pitchblende and neutralizing it with potassium hydroxide. He assumed this substance- which became known as uranium oxide-was an unknown metal but later discovered that it’s an ore from another mineral called Uranium Ore or Pitchblende Acidic Dust, also found on Earth!

Uranium was named after the planet Uranus, which had been previously discovered eight years earlier by a man named Sir William Herschel.

In 1841, Eugène-Melchior Péligot, Professor of Analytical Chemistry at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (Central School of Arts and Manufactures) in Paris, isolated the first sample uranium metal by heating some radioactive ore.

The unknown rays that Henri Becquerel discovered in 1896 are now known as “radioactivity.” The French chemist left a sample of uranium salt on top of an unexposed photographic plate and noted the dish had become foggy. As he investigated this phenomenon, he determined that these energetic particles could be seen by exposing other materials. He found out it was coming from his samples after conducting experiments with different substances placed next to them – some were exposed while others remained unaffected!

The Central Powers of World War I needed molybdenum to make artillery gun barrels and high-speed tool steels. This was a problem because they routinely substituted ferrouranium alloys which present many of the same physical characteristics instead, unbeknownst to them that this practice would become known by 1916 when America requested several prominent universities research these uses for Uranium as well as tools made with formulas using it remained in use until the 1970s only ending due to significant demand on Uranium from Manhattan Project and Cold War placed upon it during the time.

Researching Fission

This fission process, which can only be brought about by neutrons and not protons or alpha particles, is seen as the key to unlocking a new avenue for energy production. The two major hurdles in doing so are: finding an economical way of producing large quantities of uranium-235 (the isotope that undergoes nuclear reactions) and developing technology with which we can stop or control these toxic materials once reactors have created them.

In 1934, a team led by Enrico Fermi observed how bombarding uranium with neutrons produces beta rays – electrons or positrons emitted from elements formed when radioactive substances decay.

When Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann first conducted the experiments leading to the discovery of Uranium’s ability to fission, they did not know what was going on. They even noted that it might have been a mistaken result due to impurities in their radioactive carbon dioxide sample. When Lise Meitner and her nephew, physicist Otto Robert Frisch published their explanation for this process – named “nuclear fission” – we knew something big had happened! It soon became apparent when Enrico Fermi hypothesized that the nuclear reaction could sustain itself with enough neutrons released from every single nucleus breaking apart (fissuring).

When it was first published in 1939, the hypothesis of neutron emission from fissioning uranium-235 proved to be a much-needed breakthrough. It is now known that, on average, 2.5 neutrons are released by each fission event with this rare isotope, and Fermi urged Alfred O C Nier to separate samples for study so they can determine how many more neutrons were being emitted during these events than predicted before the experiment took place. On February 29, Enrico Fermi successfully separated some uranium-235 at Minnesota University’s Tate Lab!

After mailing the sample of fissile material to Columbia University’s cyclotron, John Dunning confirmed it on March 1. Further work found that uranium-238 can be transmuted into plutonium which is also fissile by thermal neutrons like uranium-235. These discoveries led numerous countries to begin working on nuclear weapons and power for their respective nations.

On December 2, 1942, the first self-sustained nuclear chain reaction was initiated. This marked a turning point in scientific discovery and led to more efficient power sources for future generations. Enrico Fermi’s team of scientists triggered this breakthrough by assembling 400 short tons of graphite, 58 short tons of uranium oxide. Six lbs worth or 5.5 metric tonnages into one pile created an environment needed for the desired result- all while working inside Stagg Field on Chicago University grounds below stands at that location.

Atomic Weapons

The United States developed two types of atomic bombs during World War II: a uranium-based device (named “Little Boy”) whose fissile material was highly enriched Uranium, and a plutonium-based device (called “Fat Man”). The first nuclear weapon used in war was “Little Boy” when it detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

The explosion filled the air with intense orange-yellow light. The ground shook furiously, and many buildings were destroyed in the blast that followed. This is just one of two atomic bombs dropped during WWII on Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki by U.S. forces – killing tens of thousands instantly or within days after the initial bomb blasts come to call “The Mushroom Clouds.” A little over a decade later, Uranium would be discovered in large quantities worldwide, leading to nuclear weapons proliferation for decades.

The Birth of the Nuclear Reactor

The X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, formerly known as the Clinton Pile and X-10 Pile, was one of two artificial nuclear reactors (after Enrico Fermi’s Chicago pile) engineered and designed for continuous operation. Argonne Nuclear Lab’s Experimental Breeder Reactor I became the first atomic reactor ever created to generate electricity as a power plant when it went live on December 20, 1951.

The world’s first commercial-scale nuclear power station, Obninsk in the Soviet Union, began with its reactor AM-1 on June 27, 1954. Initially, four 150 watt light bulbs were lit by it. Still, improvements eventually allowed for all of Arco to have electricity generated from BORAX III, a different facility also designed and operated by Argonne National Laboratory.

The first nuclear power plant in England began generating electricity on October 17, 1956. The next one was built in Pennsylvania and started operating a mere three years later. These plants were the earliest examples of this technology that we know today as safe for use around people.

The first submarine to use nuclear power for propulsion was the USS Nautilus. The ship’s maiden voyage went from New York City, all across the Atlantic Ocean and back, without refueling or charging up its battery by 2200 miles (about 3100 kilometers).

Naturally Occurring Fission

Oklo Fossil Reactors were discovered in 1972 by Francis Perrin. It is a mine containing three no longer active nuclear reactors that occurred 1.7 billion years ago when uranium-235 constituted about 3% of the total Uranium on Earth and was high enough to permit sustained nuclear fission chain reactions provided other conditions existed. 

The surrounding sediment provided the environment for storage of this waste for hundreds of million years.

The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository is a potential solution for America’s nuclear waste problem. The U.S. Federal Government cites the capacity of surrounding sediment to contain nuclear wastes as evidence supporting feasibility in storing spent fuel at this site – which means there are no worries about having another Chernobyl-type disaster on American soil!

People have been concerned over whether or not we should store our country’s used radioactive materials and found out it isn’t such an issue after all! The United States federal government has cited how capable the surrounding sediments can be when containing these dangerous substances, thus proving their confidence in safely placing them into storage for potentially a million years within this area of Nevada called “Yucca Mountain.”

More about Uranium

The r-process is responsible for the formation of thorium and Uranium, but there are other elements that can only be formed in this process. The s-process has too slow production rates to form these heavy nuclei, so it’s essential to understand how they’re created. It all starts with neutron capture. Neutron capture must happen before instability shuts down fission reactions leading up to heavier atomic numbers. Uranium and many others beyond iron owe their existence primarily due solely to an event such as a supernova or merging neutron stars when rapid neutrons create more unstable isotopes than stable ones in their aftermath.

Findings suggest that the r-process has been producing significant quantities of 236U, which is an isotope with a shorter half-life. It’s long since decayed to 232Th, and 244Pu enriched it by decay. This accounts for higher than expected levels of thorium and lower uranium abundance observed in nature because they have not had time to be processed yet due to their short lifespan or inability for longer-lived elements like 238U found in Earth’s crust.

Uranium is a naturally occurring element found in low levels within all rock, soil, and water. It may not seem too exciting, but Uranium isn’t just something to find on the periodic table! Uranium is one of Earth’s most abundant natural resources – so much for those “rare earth metals.” The decay of Uranium (along with thorium and potassium-40) has been thought by some scientists to power our planet because it produces heat which keeps the outer core liquid. This also helps drive mantle convection which then drives plate tectonics as well.

Uranium’s average concentration in the Earth’s crust is 2 to 4 parts per million, or about 40 times as abundant as silver. The Earth has 1017 kg of Uranium. It can be found everywhere from soil to oceans with a concentration that ranges from 0.7-11 parts per million depending on where you look – up into 15 ppm if looking at farmland due to phosphate fertilizers.

Uranium is more plentiful than our favorite metals like antimony, tin, mercury, and silver. It’s about as abundant as arsenic or molybdenum too! You can find Uranium in hundreds of minerals such as uraninite (the most common ore), carnotite autunite, torbernite, and coffinite, to name a few. Significant concentrations occur in some substances, including phosphate rock deposits and lignites, which are mined for commercial purposes with only 0.1% uranium content.

Uranium Mining

Worldwide production of yellowcake uranium in 2013 amounted to 70,015 tonnes. Of these tons, nearly a third were mined exclusively in Kazakhstan, and other key mining countries included Canada (9331 t), Australia (6351 t) Niger with 4578 t. Namibia came next at 4323 t, followed by Russia at 3135 t.

There has been an increase in worldwide uranium ore output throughout the years, which can be attributed to various factors such as increased demand for nuclear energy resources. For example: throughout 2009-2013 globally, more than 1 million people annually have switched from coal power generation facilities that emit high levels of CO2 to reactors that use low enriched uranium fuel rods or pellets; In addition, most nations are now taking steps towards implementing more of this clean energy source.

Uranium ore is mined in several ways: open pit, underground mining, in-situ leaching, and borehole. Low-grade uranium oxides typically contain 0.01 to 0.25% of the metal, while high-grade ores found at Athabasca Basin deposits can have as much as 23%. Uranium must be extracted from its ore with either acids or alkali that renders it into a fine powder before being dissolved by chemical agents.

2021 Global Uranium Production Leaders

Yellow Cake Uranium

The yellowcake is extracted from the mixture of leachate and processed through three different precipitation, solvent extraction, ion exchange. This process results in 75% uranium oxides U3O8, which are then calcined to remove impurities before further enrichment to U235 to become nuclear fuel.

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