Thursday, February 16, 2012

Element of the Month: Curium!

February's Element of the Month:


Atomic Mass: 247.070  amu
Melting Point: 1345 °C
Boiling Point: 3110 °C

With Curium, we return to the fakey elements that, so far as we know, have only been made through the manipulations of brainy human physicists. Like several of the "transuranic" elements, it was first brought into being by the University of California Golden Bears, in 1944. At least, that's the first time it was brought into being on purpose; it's generally assumed that Curium was brought into being more or less accidentally during previous experiments, but that nobody was able to get a good photo.

A cute little anecdote has it that the brainy physicists in question -- Glenn T. Seaborg being the biggest name -- were having a hell of a time trying to distinguish Curium from a neighboring element, Americium, that they were also working on. In a lighthearted admission of their bafflement, they gave their elusive quarry the nicknames "delirium" and "pandemonium." By the standards of the Manhattan Project era of Physics, that's pretty charming stuff, right up there with Oppenheimer's money line "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Anyway, there is a relative lot of Curium about. This is not one of those "three atoms have been spotted" sort of elements. Used nuclear fuel, for instance, is about 1/50000 Curium, so since there is an awful lot of the former lying around there is obviously an awful lot of the later. It tarnishes, apparently, and the mere existence of this piece of knowledge suggests that fairly sizable chunks of it have been kept on the shelf over the years. Despite all this, oddly, good quality pictures of the element seem to be absent from the internet. Or at least from the obvious places on the internet.

The Centerfold!

Finnish rockers "Enter My Silence" in full swing at
Helsinki's "Curium III Metal Fest," 2008.

Curium is not one of the mayfly elements; its least stable isotope has a half-life of months, and its more stable isotopes will be around for millions of years. It is of course hella radioactive, albeit less deadly than other transuranic elements we could name, what with its radiation being the relatively mild alpha variety. Now, although that "millions of years" lifespan is a little unsettling from a human perspective, from a planetary perspective it's no biggie. So that's why I threw in the weasely little "as far as we know" in the opening sentence. It is theoretically possible that Earth was laced with great seams of Curium back during the time when our lovely home planet was first coalescing. After "millions of years" went by, though, no more Curium! How things change. (There is a minority opinion, I infer, that there might be trace amounts of Curium yet in concentrations of Uranium, but I don't feel qualified to adjudicate on this hypothesis.)

Curium is, incidentally, a silvery metal. It's hard and brittle. That's kind of boring, but if you turn off the lights you'll see it's glowing purple from sheer radioactivity, and that is kind of cool. Its uses for humans are mostly as a starting point to cook up other radioactive compounds, and as nuclear fuel for spacecraft.

I haven't been able to figure out what, if anything, the Curium Palace Hotel -- the premier hotel (if it does say so itself) of the second largest city in Cyprus -- has to do with Curium. If it were actually a palace sculpted of pure Curium, that would be awesome in a way. But I wouldn't want to stay there.

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