Chemistry Recap: Getting to Know Uranium Again

uraniumUranium is one of the heaviest of all the naturally occurring elements. It is a staple topic for everybody who went through the most basic Chemistry classes and one that most people would remember. Back then, however, it probably didn’t pass up as a fundamental knowledge that will come useful years after.

It’s important to remember even the most basic information about this element. Talk of depleted uranium, its disposal and services are buzzing nowadays. With the large amounts of energy uranium is capable of, it’s important the population is educated regarding this element’s power and dangers.

Origins and Functions

German chemist Martin Klaproth discovered Uranium in 1789 and named it after the planet Uranus. It is as common in the Earth’s crust as tin, tungsten and molybdenum. With an average concentration of 1.3 parts per billion, uranium is also found in the oceans.

As early as 79 AD, uranium was used to color glass. In fact, it was also used in luminous paint, such as in the dials of watches and aircraft instruments. It’s also been used for the treatment of disease, although uranium is predominantly used for nuclear power.

Uranium Fission

Unique among naturally occurring materials, uranium alone can sustain a fission chain reaction, releasing large amounts of power, so large it powers 4% of the world’s electricity through nuclear reactors, amounting to over 2700 billion kWh.

How does uranium achieve this power? It sustains a fission chain reaction that enables it to produce a very large amount of heat. This occurs in the nuclear reactor and the produced heat is used to make steam, which spins a turbine to drive a generator, producing electricity.

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Naturally, humans want the uranium even more enriched to deliver even more excellent results. Depleted uranium is a by-product from uranium enrichment, which needs to be disposed due to certain health hazards and environmental concerns.