Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Plutonium’s new horizons

The piece on plutonium in the December issue (subscription req’d) marks the end of last year’s writing competition’s excitement; all winning essays have now appeared in the journal as ‘in your element’ articles — we hope you enjoyed reading them!

LTOR: © GL ARCHIVE/ALAMY; © IVY CLOSE IMAGES/ALAMY; © DENNIS HALLINAN/ALAMY

The last word goes to Jan Hartmann, graduate student at RWTH Aachen University, who acknowledges the history of plutonium yet highlights that nuclear weapons, and nuclear energy, are not all there is to this intriguing element.

Whether it counts as a naturally occurring element is pretty much a matter of opinion — some plutonium has been isolated from uranium ore, but only traces, and all the plutonium in nature makes up about 2 x 10–19 weight% (minus nineteen!) of the lithosphere so you’re free to consider that the heaviest naturally-occurring element is really uranium.

Hartmann’s article describes why element 94 is referred to as “a physicist’s dream but an engineer’s nightmare”, and also discusses the rich redox and coordination chemistries of this element. But one anecdote I’m particularly fond of is that, “of all the elements named after celestial objects, plutonium is the only one so far to be sent to its astronomical namesake”.

Anne

Anne Pichon (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)

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