Stocks and News
Home | Week in Review Process | Terms of Use | About UsContact Us
   Articles Go Fund Me All-Species List Hot Spots Go Fund Me
Week in Review   |  Bar Chat    |  Hot Spots    |   Dr. Bortrum    |   Wall St. History
Stock and News: Hot Spots
  Search Our Archives: 
 

 

Dr. Bortrum

 

AddThis Feed Button

http://www.gofundme.com/s3h2w8

 

   

01/17/2007

Newsworthy Isotopes

Two isotopes have been in the news recently, in totally different
contexts. For those who are not comfortable with isotopes,
here’s a quick review, taking hydrogen as the simplest example.
Ordinary hydrogen consists of a nucleus of one positively
charged proton and one electron orbiting around the nucleus. We
can call this H-1. Another form of hydrogen, deuterium, has a
proton plus a neutron (uncharged) in its nucleus. We can call
this H-2 (totaling the number of protons and neutrons). Tritium
is a third isotope of hydrogen with 2 neutrons and one proton in
its nucleus. We can call this H-3. There’s another term, the
“atomic number”, which is the number of protons in the nucleus
(which equals the number of electrons in orbit – have to balance
the charges). The atomic number of hydrogen is 1.

When I was in school, there were 92 elements in the periodic
table and our solar system had nine planets. Now there are at
least 117 elements and only 8 planets – go figure. Surely you’ve
heard the big news about hassium-270, with an atomic number of
108? No? Well, I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t kept up
with my elements and hadn’t heard of hassium until I saw
mention of it in an article by Mitch Jacoby in the December 21
Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN). Hassium, named
after the Latin word for the German state of Hessen, has only
been around since 1984, when a team in Germany slammed iron
ions into a lead target in an accelerator and made hassium-265.
Don’t go looking for any hassium-265; it doesn’t hang around
very long with a half-life of only a couple thousandths of a
second!

Theoreticians had predicted that hassium-270 would have what
they call a “doubly magic” number of neutrons and protons and
should last a lot longer. I won’t try to explain “doubly magic”;
I’m not even comfortable with just plain “magic” numbers! Well,
Jan Dvorak and 23 coworkers in Germany announced in the
December 15 issue of Physical Review Letters that they had
succeeded in making all of four atoms of hassium-270. Would
you believe that after, these researchers went to all the trouble of
making these four atoms, two of them were probably gone in
about 22 seconds, the half-life of the unstable hassium-270.
Of the 2 atoms that were left, one of those should have decayed
after another 22 seconds – that’s what the half-life means. I
admit that with only four atoms, statistics don’t mean much.
However, I guess the theoreticians were happy – hassium-270
does last about 10 thousand times longer than hassium-265.

OK, I imagine that you probably couldn’t care less about
hassium and, frankly, I don’t either. However, I do think it’s
amazing that these nuclear guys and gals can make these exotic
elements and, with only a handful of atoms or less, separate them
chemically from the other debris of the nuclear reactions,
measure a half-life and sometimes do a bit of chemistry on them
before the atoms decay into some other element or elements.

The other isotope in the news is one I’m virtually certain you’ve
heard about unless you’ve been on a desert island the past month
or so. Polonium-210 is the poison used to kill former Soviet spy
Alexander Litvinenko and now is being found in the bodies of
others who came in contact with Litvinenko as well as on various
items and in various venues and aircraft associated with those
individuals. Unlike hassium, polonium is not a newcomer to the
periodic table of elements. Polonium dates back to 1898, when
Marie Curie and her husband Pierre were working with
pitchblende, a uranium ore. Marie found that something other
than uranium was radioactive in the ore. The new element was
polonium, which was named after Poland, Marie’s beloved
native country. She was Marya Sklodowska before becoming
Marie Curie.

Polonium-210 has a half-life of 138 days and is a product of the
decay of radium, later discovered by the Curies in pitchblende.
With a half-life of 1620 years, radium became the focus of their
work and they never isolated pure polonium. It’s probably
fortunate that the Curies found the radium and didn’t concentrate
on polonium or they might have died even sooner than they did.
A half-century or so after its discovery, polonium-210 was used
as a trigger in early atomic bombs.

Today, aside from its use to poison ex-spies, it’s used as a heat
source in spacecraft and, surprising to me, in antistatic
applications and film cleaners. I went online and found I could
buy an antistatic brush containing polonium-210! Russia is the
prime supplier of polonium-210 and sells over 3 ounces a year to
the U.S., according to an article by William Broad in the
December 3 New York Times. Broad points out that six of these
brushes contain enough polonium-210 for a lethal dose – if you
have the chemical experience to know how to retrieve the
element from the brush. And the six brushes would only cost
around $200.

In an article in the December 15 C&EN, Ivan Amato discusses
why polonium-210 is such a deadly poison; it only took 22 days
to kill Litvinenko after his exposure. One conjecture is that it
could have been slipped into his tea. Polonium dissolves readily
in acids and in solution in a sealed vial or container it can be
transported safely. It wouldn’t be hard to surreptitiously slip
some polonium salt solution into a cup or pot of tea. However,
it’s clear from the findings of polonium-210 all over the place
after Litvinenko’s poisoning that it’s not easy to contain the
isotope once the polonium has been turned loose, so to speak.

Why is it safe to transport this highly toxic radioactive element in
a vial or other closed container? Polonium-210 decays by
emitting high-energy alpha particles (an alpha particles is the
nucleus of a helium atom with 2 protons and 2 neutrons). A
sheet of paper can stop these alpha particles. One might think
that if a sheet of paper can stop the alpha particles they shouldn’t
be particularly worrisome. However, put polonium-210 in your
body and those alpha particles are deadly. The polonium atoms
hook up with proteins and spread to every corner of your body.
Even a mere millionth of a gram of polonium contains 3
quadrillion (3 followed by 15 zeroes) atoms. Each alpha particle
can travel through several cells and as it does it splits chemical
bonds, ionizes atoms, destroys proteins and tears apart DNA. In
the bone marrow, the alpha particles kill stem cells needed for
the replacement of red blood cells and important immune cells, a
worst-case scenario that may have caused Litvinenko’s rapid
demise.

As a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh in the late
1940s, I worked with an isotope of sulfur that emitted radiation
that could be stopped by a sheet of paper. In retrospect, I should
have been much more careful in my handling of the material.
However, those were the days when the dangers of radiation
were not fully appreciated. I’ve mentioned before that a fellow
who was then connected with the cyclotron at Pitt would put
coins in the machine, take them out in his hands and show
visitors how they would “light up” a Geiger counter! I
understand he died early of cancer. Fortunately, in my case, the
radioactive sulfur emitted low-energy electrons, not high-energy
alpha particles. And I’ve just passed my 79th birthday.

Allen F. Bortrum



AddThis Feed Button

 

-01/17/2007-      
Web Epoch NJ Web Design  |  (c) Copyright 2016 StocksandNews.com, LLC.

Dr. Bortrum

01/17/2007

Newsworthy Isotopes

Two isotopes have been in the news recently, in totally different
contexts. For those who are not comfortable with isotopes,
here’s a quick review, taking hydrogen as the simplest example.
Ordinary hydrogen consists of a nucleus of one positively
charged proton and one electron orbiting around the nucleus. We
can call this H-1. Another form of hydrogen, deuterium, has a
proton plus a neutron (uncharged) in its nucleus. We can call
this H-2 (totaling the number of protons and neutrons). Tritium
is a third isotope of hydrogen with 2 neutrons and one proton in
its nucleus. We can call this H-3. There’s another term, the
“atomic number”, which is the number of protons in the nucleus
(which equals the number of electrons in orbit – have to balance
the charges). The atomic number of hydrogen is 1.

When I was in school, there were 92 elements in the periodic
table and our solar system had nine planets. Now there are at
least 117 elements and only 8 planets – go figure. Surely you’ve
heard the big news about hassium-270, with an atomic number of
108? No? Well, I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t kept up
with my elements and hadn’t heard of hassium until I saw
mention of it in an article by Mitch Jacoby in the December 21
Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN). Hassium, named
after the Latin word for the German state of Hessen, has only
been around since 1984, when a team in Germany slammed iron
ions into a lead target in an accelerator and made hassium-265.
Don’t go looking for any hassium-265; it doesn’t hang around
very long with a half-life of only a couple thousandths of a
second!

Theoreticians had predicted that hassium-270 would have what
they call a “doubly magic” number of neutrons and protons and
should last a lot longer. I won’t try to explain “doubly magic”;
I’m not even comfortable with just plain “magic” numbers! Well,
Jan Dvorak and 23 coworkers in Germany announced in the
December 15 issue of Physical Review Letters that they had
succeeded in making all of four atoms of hassium-270. Would
you believe that after, these researchers went to all the trouble of
making these four atoms, two of them were probably gone in
about 22 seconds, the half-life of the unstable hassium-270.
Of the 2 atoms that were left, one of those should have decayed
after another 22 seconds – that’s what the half-life means. I
admit that with only four atoms, statistics don’t mean much.
However, I guess the theoreticians were happy – hassium-270
does last about 10 thousand times longer than hassium-265.

OK, I imagine that you probably couldn’t care less about
hassium and, frankly, I don’t either. However, I do think it’s
amazing that these nuclear guys and gals can make these exotic
elements and, with only a handful of atoms or less, separate them
chemically from the other debris of the nuclear reactions,
measure a half-life and sometimes do a bit of chemistry on them
before the atoms decay into some other element or elements.

The other isotope in the news is one I’m virtually certain you’ve
heard about unless you’ve been on a desert island the past month
or so. Polonium-210 is the poison used to kill former Soviet spy
Alexander Litvinenko and now is being found in the bodies of
others who came in contact with Litvinenko as well as on various
items and in various venues and aircraft associated with those
individuals. Unlike hassium, polonium is not a newcomer to the
periodic table of elements. Polonium dates back to 1898, when
Marie Curie and her husband Pierre were working with
pitchblende, a uranium ore. Marie found that something other
than uranium was radioactive in the ore. The new element was
polonium, which was named after Poland, Marie’s beloved
native country. She was Marya Sklodowska before becoming
Marie Curie.

Polonium-210 has a half-life of 138 days and is a product of the
decay of radium, later discovered by the Curies in pitchblende.
With a half-life of 1620 years, radium became the focus of their
work and they never isolated pure polonium. It’s probably
fortunate that the Curies found the radium and didn’t concentrate
on polonium or they might have died even sooner than they did.
A half-century or so after its discovery, polonium-210 was used
as a trigger in early atomic bombs.

Today, aside from its use to poison ex-spies, it’s used as a heat
source in spacecraft and, surprising to me, in antistatic
applications and film cleaners. I went online and found I could
buy an antistatic brush containing polonium-210! Russia is the
prime supplier of polonium-210 and sells over 3 ounces a year to
the U.S., according to an article by William Broad in the
December 3 New York Times. Broad points out that six of these
brushes contain enough polonium-210 for a lethal dose – if you
have the chemical experience to know how to retrieve the
element from the brush. And the six brushes would only cost
around $200.

In an article in the December 15 C&EN, Ivan Amato discusses
why polonium-210 is such a deadly poison; it only took 22 days
to kill Litvinenko after his exposure. One conjecture is that it
could have been slipped into his tea. Polonium dissolves readily
in acids and in solution in a sealed vial or container it can be
transported safely. It wouldn’t be hard to surreptitiously slip
some polonium salt solution into a cup or pot of tea. However,
it’s clear from the findings of polonium-210 all over the place
after Litvinenko’s poisoning that it’s not easy to contain the
isotope once the polonium has been turned loose, so to speak.

Why is it safe to transport this highly toxic radioactive element in
a vial or other closed container? Polonium-210 decays by
emitting high-energy alpha particles (an alpha particles is the
nucleus of a helium atom with 2 protons and 2 neutrons). A
sheet of paper can stop these alpha particles. One might think
that if a sheet of paper can stop the alpha particles they shouldn’t
be particularly worrisome. However, put polonium-210 in your
body and those alpha particles are deadly. The polonium atoms
hook up with proteins and spread to every corner of your body.
Even a mere millionth of a gram of polonium contains 3
quadrillion (3 followed by 15 zeroes) atoms. Each alpha particle
can travel through several cells and as it does it splits chemical
bonds, ionizes atoms, destroys proteins and tears apart DNA. In
the bone marrow, the alpha particles kill stem cells needed for
the replacement of red blood cells and important immune cells, a
worst-case scenario that may have caused Litvinenko’s rapid
demise.

As a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh in the late
1940s, I worked with an isotope of sulfur that emitted radiation
that could be stopped by a sheet of paper. In retrospect, I should
have been much more careful in my handling of the material.
However, those were the days when the dangers of radiation
were not fully appreciated. I’ve mentioned before that a fellow
who was then connected with the cyclotron at Pitt would put
coins in the machine, take them out in his hands and show
visitors how they would “light up” a Geiger counter! I
understand he died early of cancer. Fortunately, in my case, the
radioactive sulfur emitted low-energy electrons, not high-energy
alpha particles. And I’ve just passed my 79th birthday.

Allen F. Bortrum