Isotopes - Real-life applications

Deuterium and Tritium

Only three isotopes are considered significant enough to have names of their own, as opposed to being named after a parent atom (for example, carbon-12, uranium-238). These are protium, deuterium, and tritium, all three isotopes of hydrogen. Protium, or 1 H, is hydrogen in its most basic form—one proton, no neutrons—and the name "protium" is only applied when necessary to distinguish it from the other two isotopes. Therefore we will focus primarily on the two others.

Deuterium, designated as 2 H, is a stable isotope, whereas tritium— 3 H—is radioactive. Both, in fact, have chemical symbols (D and T respectively), just as though they were elements on the periodic table. What makes these two so special? They are, as it were, "the products of a good home"—in other words, their parent atom is the most basic and plentiful element in the universe. Indeed, the vast majority of the universe is hydrogen, along with helium, which is formed by the fusion of hydrogen atoms. If all atoms were numbers, then hydrogen would be 1; but of course, this is more than a metaphor, since its atomic number is indeed 1.

Ordinary hydrogen or protium, as noted, consists of a single proton and a single electron, the simplest possible atomic form possible. Its simplicity has made it a model for understanding the atom, and therefore when physicists discovered the existence of two hydrogen atoms that were just a bit more complex, they were intrigued.

Just as hydrogen represented the standard against which atoms could be measured, scientists reasoned, deuterium and tritium could offer valuable information regarding stable and unstable isotopes respectively. Furthermore, the pronounced tendency of hydrogen to bond with other substances—it almost never appears by itself on Earth—presented endless opportunities for study regarding hydrogen isotopes in association with other elements.


Deuterium is sometimes called "heavy hydrogen," and its nucleus—with one proton and one neutron—is called a deuteron. It was first isolated in 1931 by American chemist Harold Clayton Urey (1893-1981), who was awarded the 1934 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery.

Serving at that time as a professor of chemistry at Columbia University in New York City, Urey started with the assumption that any hydrogen isotopes other than protium must exist in very minute quantities. This assumption, in turn, followed from an awareness that hydrogen's average atomic mass—measured in atomic mass units—was only slightly higher than 1. There must be, as Urey correctly reasoned, a very small quantity of "heavy hydrogen" on Earth.

To separate deuterium, Urey collected a relatively large sample of liquid hydrogen: 4.2 quarts (4 l). Then he allowed the liquid to evaporate very slowly, predicting that the more abundant protium would evaporate more quickly than the isotope whose existence he had hypothesized. After all but 0.034 oz (1 ml) of the sample had evaporated, he submitted the remainder to a form of analysis called spectroscopy, adding a burst of energy to the atoms and then analyzing the light spectrum they emitted for evidence of differing varieties of atom.


Deuterium, with an atomic mass of 2.014102 amu, is almost exactly twice as heavy as protium, which has an atomic mass of 1.007825. Its melting point, or the temperature at which it changes from a solid to a liquid −426°F (−254°C), is much higher than for protium, which melts at −434°F (−259°C). The same relationship holds for its boiling point, or the temperature at which it changes from a liquid to its normal state on Earth, as a gas: −417°F (−249°C), as compared to −423°F (−253°C) for protium. Deuterium is also much, much less plentiful than protium: protium represents 99.985% of all the hydrogen that occurs naturally, meaning that deuterium accounts for just 0.015%.

Often, deuterium is applied as a tracer, an atom or group of atoms whose participation in a chemical, physical, or biological reaction can be easily observed. Radioisotopes are most often used as tracers, precisely because of their radioactive emissions; deuterium, on the other hand, is effective due to its almost 2:1 mass ratio in comparison to protium. In addition, it bonds with other atoms in a fashion slightly different from that of protium, and this contrast makes its presence easier to trace.

Its higher boiling and melting points mean that when deuterium is combined with oxygen to form "heavy water" (D 2 O), the water likewise has higher boiling and melting points than ordinary water. Heavy water is often used in nuclear fission reactors to slow down the fission process, or the splitting of atoms.


Deuterium is also applied in a type of nuclear reaction much more powerful that fission: fusion, or the joining of atomic nuclei. The Sun produces energy by fusion, a thermonuclear reaction that takes places at temperatures of many millions of degrees Celsius. In solar fusion, it appears that two protium nuclei join to form a single deuteron.

During the period shortly after World War II, physicists developed a means of duplicating the thermonuclear fusion process. The result was the hydrogen bomb—more properly called a fusion bomb—whose detonating device was a compound of lithium and deuterium called lithium deuteride. Vastly more powerful than the "atomic" (that is, fission) bombs dropped by the United States over Japan in 1945, the hydrogen bomb greatly increased the threat of worldwide nuclear annihilation in the postwar years.

Yet the power that could destroy the world also has the potential to provide safe, abundant fusion energy from power plants—a dream that as yet remains unrealized. Among the approaches being attempted by physicists studying nuclear fusion is a process in which two deuterons are fused. The result is a triton, the nucleus of tritium, along with a single proton. The triton and deuteron would then be fused to create a helium nucleus, with a resulting release of vast amounts of energy.


Whereas deuterium has a single neutron, tritium—as its mass number of 3 indicates—has two. And just as deuterium has approximately twice the mass of protium, tritium has about three times the mass, 3.016 amu. As is expected, the thermal properties of tritium are different from those of protium. Again, the melting and boiling points are higher: thus tritium heavy water (T 2 O) melts at 40°F (4.5°C), as compared with 32°F (0°C) for H 2 O.

Because it is radioactive, tritium is often described in terms of half-life, the length of time it takes for a substance to diminish to one-half its initial amount. The half-life of tritium is 12.26 years. As it decays, its nucleus emits a low-energy beta particle, and this results in the creation of the helium-3 isotope. Due to the low energy levels involved, the radioactive decay of tritium poses little danger to humans.

Like deuterium, tritium is applied in nuclear fusion, though due to its scarcity, it is usually combined with deuterium. Furthermore, tritium decay requires that hydrogen bombs containing the radioisotope be recharged periodically. Also, like deuterium, tritium is an effective tracer. Sometimes it is released in small quantities into groundwater as a means of monitoring subterranean water flow. It is also used as a tracer in biochemical processes.

Separating Isotopes

As noted in the discussion of deuterium, tritium can only be separated from protium due to the differences in mass. The chemical properties of isotopes with the same parent element make them otherwise indistinguishable, and hence purely chemical means cannot be used to separate them.

Physicists working on the Manhattan Project, the U.S. effort to develop atomic weaponry during World War II, were faced with the need to separate 235 U from 238 U. Uranium-238 is far more abundant, but what they wanted was the uranium-235, highly fissionable and thus useful in the processes they were attempting.

Their solution was to allow a gaseous uranium compound to diffuse, or separate, the uranium through porous barriers. Because uranium-238 was heavier, it tended to move more slowly through the barriers, much like grains of rice getting caught in a sifter. Another means of separating isotopes is by mass spectrometry.


One of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project was Italian physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954), who used radium and beryllium powder to construct a neutron source for making new radioactive materials. Fermi and his associates succeeded in producing radioisotopes of sodium, iron, copper, gold, and numerous other elements. As a result of Fermi's work, for which he won the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics, scientists have been able to develop radioactive versions of virtually all elements.

Interestingly, the ideas of radioactivity, fission reactions, and fusion reactions collectively represent the realization of a goal sought by the medieval alchemists: the transformation of one element into another. The alchemists, forerunners of chemists, believed they could transform ordinary metals into gold by using various potions—an impossible dream. Yet as noted in the preceding paragraph, among the radioisotopes generated by Fermi's neutron source was gold. The "catch," of course, is that this gold was unstable; furthermore, the amount of energy and human mental effort required to generate it far outweighed the monetary value of the gold itself.

Radioactivity is, in the modern imagination, typically associated with fallout from nuclear war, or with hazards resulting from nuclear power—hazards that, as it turns out, have been greatly exaggerated. Nor is radioactivity always harmful to humans. For instance, with its applications in medicine—as a means of diagnosing and treating thyroid problems, or as a treatment for cancer patients—it can actually save lives.


It is a good thing that radiation, even the harmful variety known as ionizing radiation, is not fatal in small doses, because every person on Earth is exposed to small quantities of radiation every year. About 82% of this comes from natural sources, and 18% from manmade sources. Of course, some people are at much greater risk of radiation exposure than others: coal miners are exposed to higher levels of the radon-222 isotope present underground, while cigarette smokers ingest much higher levels of radiation than ordinary people, due to the polonium-210, lead-210, and radon-222 isotopes present in the nitrogen fertilizers used to grow tobacco.

Nuclear weapons, as most people know, produce a great deal of radioactive pollution. However, atmospheric testing of nuclear armaments has long been banned, and though the isotopes released in such tests are expected to remain in the atmosphere for about a century, they do not constitute a significant health hazard to most Americans. (It should be noted that nations not inclined to abide by international protocols might still conduct atmospheric tests in defiance of the test bans.) Nuclear power plants, despite the great deal of attention they have received from the media and environmentalist groups, do not pose the hazard that has often been claimed: in fact, coal-and oil-burning power plants are responsible for far more radioactive pollution in the United States.

This is not to say that nuclear energy poses no dangers, as the disaster at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union has shown. In April 1986, an accident at a nuclear reactor in what is now the Ukraine killed 31 workers immediately, and ultimately led to the deaths of some 10,000 people. The fact that the radiation was allowed to spread had much to do with the secretive tactics of the Communist government, which attempted to cover up the problem rather than evacuate the area.

Another danger associated with nuclear power plants is radioactive waste. Spent fuel rods and other waste products from these plants have to be dumped somewhere, but it cannot simply be buried in the ground because it will create a continuing health hazard through the water supply. No fully fail-safe storage system has been developed, and the problem of radioactive waste poses a continuing threat due to the extremely long half-lives of some of the isotopes involved.

Dating Techniques

In addition to their uses in applications related to nuclear energy, isotopes play a significant role in dating techniques. The latter may sound like a subject that has something to do with romance, but it does not: dating techniques involve the use of materials, including isotopes, to estimate the age of both organic and inorganic materials.

Uranium-238, for instance, has a half-life of 4.47 · 10 9 years, which is nearly the age of Earth; in fact, uranium-dating techniques have been used to determine the planet's age, which is estimated at about 4.7 billion years. As noted elsewhere in this volume, potassium-argon dating, which involves the isotopes potassium-40 and argon-40, has been used to date volcanic layers in east Africa. Because the half-life of potassium-40 is 1.3 billion years, this method is useful for dating activities that are distant in the human scale of time, but fairly recent in geological terms.

Another dating technique is radiocarbon dating, used for estimating the age of things that were once alive. All living things contain carbon, both in the form of the stable isotope carbon-12 and the radioisotope carbon-14. While a plant or animal is living, there is a certain proportion between the amounts of these two isotopes in the organism's body, with carbon-12 being far more abundant. When the organism dies, however, it ceases to acquire new carbon, and the carbon-14 present in the body begins to decay into nitrogen-14. The amount of nitrogen-14 that has been formed is thus an indication of the amount of time that has passed since the organism was alive.

Because it has a half-life of 5,730 years, carbon-14 is useful for dating activities within the span of human history, though it is not without controversy. Some scientists contend, for instance, that samples may be contaminated by carbon from the surrounding soils, thus affecting ratios and leading to inaccurate dates.


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