polonium

polonium (pəlōˈnēəm) [key], radioactive chemical element; symbol Po; at. no. 84; mass no. of most stable isotope 209; m.p. 254°C; b.p. 962°C; sp. gr. about 9.4; valence +2 or +4. Polonium is an extremely rare element found in uranium ores (about 0.1 gram per ton). A product of radium decay, it is sometimes called radium F. In its physical and chemical properties it resembles tellurium (the element above it in Group 16 of the periodic table) and bismuth.

Polonium has 34 isotopes, more than any other element. All of these isotopes are radioactive. The most stable, polonium-209, has a half-life of about 103 years. Polonium-208 (half-life about 3 years) is the only other polonium isotope with a half-life over one year. Although these two isotopes can be prepared in small quantities in a particle accelerator, they are very expensive to produce.

All other polonium isotopes are short-lived except polonium-210 (half-life about 138 days), which is the most commonly used isotope. It is prepared by bombarding bismuth with neutrons in a nuclear reactor. It is a highly radioactive material. A milligram of polonium-210 emits as much alpha radiation as about 5 grams of radium, and enough gamma radiation to cause a blue glow in the air around it. It can be used as a heat source, since most of the energy of the alpha radiation is absorbed as heat within the polonium and its container.

Polonium has found use in small portable radiation sources and in the control of static electricity. However, it is an extremely toxic substance and must be handled with great care. Polonium was the first element to be discovered because of its radioactivity; it was discovered in pitchblende in 1898 by Marie Curie and named for her native country, Poland.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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