Tuesday, May 24, 2011

High-Yield Nuclear Explosions: A Good Source of Transuranic Elements?

Though it no longer serves as a valid excuse of conducting actual nuclear weapons explosion tests in the increasingly geopolitically unstable present, are high-yield nuclear explosions still a good source of transuranic elements?

By: Ringo Bones

I highly doubt it if the UN Security Council will just stand idly by if Iran, North Korea or even Pakistan will conduct a high-yield nuclear weapons test and use the "physics experiment / science experiment" excuse just to get away with it. But believe it or not, there was a time in history - during the early 1950s in fact - that high-yield H-bomb tests were a very important source of transuranic elements.

Even in our current supposedly gentile and erudite climes of academia, chemistry and physics textbooks still tels us that the possibility of producing elements beyond uranium can either be done by the bombardment of the heavy isotope targets with heavy ions, or by the irradiation of uranium or other transuranic element with the instantaneous high flux of neutrons produced by underground nuclear explosions. The limit which will ultimately be set by the yields of the nuclear reactions and by the half-lives of radioactive decay of the products. In fact, two transuranic elements have been first identified in the first H-bomb debris before they are synthesized in the laboratory a few months later.

One of these was the element Einsteinium, element number 99, chemical symbol Es, named after Albert Einstein; first discovered in 1952 after being detected in the debris from the 1952 H-bomb explosion at Eniwetok in the Pacific after tons of radioactive coral from atolls in the blast area were sifted and examined. Almost a year had passed before einsteinium was synthesized in the laboratory. Also fermium, element number 100, chemical symbol Fm, named after Enrico Fermi; discovered in 1953. Fermium, like einsteinium, was first isolated from the debris / atomic fallout of the 1952 H-bomb test. Because of its relatively short life-span, scientists were somewhat skeptical at first if enough fermium will ever be obtained from the tons of debris to be weighed. Surely, this is probably go down in scientific history as the most expensive and dangerous way to create transuranic elements.