Written by: Felix Zhou
When we think of uranium, we might envision scary nuclear radiation.
Have No Fear
Actually, there are a lot of good reasons why we shouldn’t be scared of uranium.
But you might say, “But I’m scared of radiation!” Fair. But I’m going to tell you that you don’t have to be scared of radiation, at least not most of the radiation coming from uranium.
Slow and Steady
Why? Well, simply because, from a radioactive standpoint, uranium is a weakling. U-235, the kind that causes all the nuclear explosions, is super rare. Instead, 99.3% of all the uranium on Earth is a different kind, U-238, which has a half-life of 4.5 billion years! And even U-235’s half-life is an impressive 700 million years. It decays so slowly, and the radiation is so weak that it really is only dangerous if you eat it – but it’s also rather toxic…so I wouldn’t eat it.
What Is It Good For?
In light of that, let’s talk about some non-nuclear uses of uranium (yes, those exist too!). I think they really don’t get enough attention. For one, uranium’s actually really common in the Earth’s crust-40 times more abundant than silver, in fact. Since U-238 decays so slowly, scientists can use uranium in rocks to figure out how old those rocks are. Not by measuring the uranium directly, but by measuring levels of lead, which is what uranium’s radioactivity makes it eventually turn into. Pretty useful. And speaking of the Earth, it turns out the energy from uranium’s radioactivity plays a big role in keeping the Earth’s insides hot and keeps our magnetic field going, which is a pretty big deal.
It’s a Chemical
With all the hype on radioactivity, people often forget about the whole “chemical element” part of uranium, but it turns out it’s pretty special there too. Scientists have actually spent quite a bit of energy studying the element. For one, it is a better catalyst for making ammonia than iron. Its reactions can really shed light on parts of organic and metallic chemistry and would make good catalysts here as well. Moreover, it is a great semiconductor; uranium has the highest solar cell efficiency at room temperature, above elements like silicon, and would be highly useful in solar power.
More, So Much More
As you can see, the uses of uranium extend far beyond power plants and bombs, not to mention its potential uses in even more things. Don’t be nervous about the science; embrace the science, and there is much we can discover.