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Science Innovation Centre · 094 · Plutonium

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Plutonium was discovered in 1941 by Rd. Glenn T. Seaborg and Edwin McMillan, Kennedy, and Wahl by deuteron bombardment of uranium in the 60-inch cyclotron of the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, but the discovery was kept secret. It was named after the planet Pluto, having been discovered directly after Neptunium.

The metal has a silvery appearance and takes on a yellow tarnish when slightly oxidized. It is chemically reactive. A relatively large piece of plutonium is warm to the touch because of the energy given off in alpha decay. Larger pieces will produce enough heat to boil water.

It is produced in extensive quantities in nuclear reactors from natural uranium: 238U (n, gamma) → 239U–(beta) → 239Np–(beta) → 239Pu.

Plutonium is a key fissile component in modern nuclear weapons; care must be taken to avoid accumulation of amounts of plutonium which approach critical mass, the amount of plutonium which will self-generate a nuclear reaction. Despite not being confined by external pressure as is required for a nuclear weapon, it will nevertheless heat itself and break whatever confining environment it is in. Shape is relevant; compact shapes such as spheres are to be avoided.

Plutonium could also be used to manufacture radiological weapons. The plutonium isotope 238Pu is an alpha emitter with a half-life of 87 years. These characteristics make it well suited for electrical power generation for devices which must function without direct maintenance for timescales approximating a human life time. It is therefore used in RTGs such as those powering the Galileo and Cassini space probes. Plutonium-238 was used on the Apollo-14 lunar flight in 1971 to power seismic devices and other equipment left on the Moon, and it was also the power supply of the two Voyager super craft launched in 1977.