Monday, January 31, 2011

So What Is This Polonium Business Anyway?

Since the sensational media focus on Alexander Litvinenko’s assassination by polonium 210 isotope poisoning, the element not only gained a much needed fame but also notoriety. But will better knowledge of the element polonium improve its image?

By: Ringo Bones

So what is polonium by the way? First let us examine it from a rational point of view. Back in 1898, when the groundwork for 20th Century nuclear physics was already underway, Pierre and Marie Curie did some experiments with pitchblende, an ore where they extracted the element uranium. The Curies found out that pitchblende was more than four times more radioactive than uranium on a pound-for-pound basis. Armed with this finding, they concluded that pitchblende must contain unidentified elements more radioactive than uranium. As uranium was discovered before, the Curies took the opportunity to explore the yet unknown properties of pitchblende. Laborious chemical separations of the constituents of pitchblende were carried out, resulting of the discovery of two new radioactive elements by the Curies back in 1898: radium and polonium.

Despite the resulting fame in honor of their work on radium and polonium, Marie Curie and her daughter Irène and son-in-law Frédéric, all died as victims of the effects of radioactivity. Even their notes, after all this time, can only be handled behind a radiation proof glass, associated shielding and robotic arms used to handle highly radioactive materials. A “testament” to the persistence of radioactive contamination.

Technically, the chemical nature of polonium is known largely from observing extremely small amounts of the element through chemical reactions via radioactive-tracer techniques in which polonium is mixed with tellurium as a coexisting reactant. The available quantities of natural polonium that can be used for scientific study, is extremely small: over 25,000 pounds of pitchblende ore must be refined to obtain just a gram of chemically-pure polonium. Since the half-life of the most abundant isotope, Po-210, is only 138.7 days, thus its scarcity is inevitable. One method of producing the isotope for industrial use is by bombarding bismuth209 with neutrons to form bismuth-210, which decays by the loss of an electron to give polonium-210.

Polonium has legitimate uses. Our favorite use for it is in removing dust from records/vinyl L. P. s (We still have them, we still use them, we still love them and they sound way, way better than CDs, I-pods or on-line digital music downloads especially on snare drums and cymbals!). Using “Nuclear Products Company 3R500 Staticmaster” this is a polonium-treated jaguar-hair brush that eliminates static and dust from records. We swear by this domestic static electricity neutralizer. You might criticize us for using a cancer causing apparatus composed of an endangered species material. As Michael Fremer expressed his sentiments on the February 1998 issue of Stereophile: “When clean records are at stake, who cares?” Remember the 139-day half-life, the “Staticmaster” needs “recharging” from time to time. A similar brush variant of the “Nuclear Products Company 3R500 Staticmaster” using the same polonium anti-static principle is also available as a dust-removing brush for photographic films.

By the way, polonium is also used as an alpha - particle source for scientific use. Since alpha - particles have very weak penetrating power. They can’t even go through a piece of paper thus polonium is only dangerous when taken internally either by ingestion, inhalation, or injected into the human body. We hope that the incident with Alexander Litvinenko doesn’t make our powers-that-be legislating irrational laws brought about by fear and lack of understanding of the element polonium.