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tritium

tritium (trĬt´ēəm), radioactive isotope of hydrogen with mass number 3. The tritium nucleus, called a triton, contains one proton and two neutrons. It has a half-life of 12.5 years and decays by beta-particle emission. The symbol is T or 3H. It is one form of heavy hydrogen, the other being deuterium. It is usually produced in nuclear reactors as a byproduct of the irradiation of lithium. Its current major use is to increase the yield of thermonuclear devices. The U.S. Department of Energy has a production reactor in Savannah, Georgia for this purpose. In the future, vast amounts of tritium will fuel experiments in fusion research. Canada, Europe and Japan have extensive programs underway to develop physics-based, as opposed to mechanical based, production procedures to generate the volumes necessary to proceed with these experiments.

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tritium

trit·i·um / ˈtritēəm; ˈtrish-/ • n. Chem. a radioactive isotope of hydrogen with a mass approximately three times that of the common protium isotope. (Symbol: T)

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Tritium

Tritium

Resources

Tritium is an isotope of the chemical element hydrogen (H). It has not only a single proton but also two neutrons in the nucleus of its atoms. Although technically it is still the element hydrogen, it has its own chemical symbol, T, although it can also be represented as1H3.

Historically, Walter Russell (18711963) predicted tritium in the late 1920s. Then, in the early 1930s, New Zealand-British nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford (18711937), the First Baron Rutherford of Nelson, produced tritium from deuterium, another isotope of hydrogen. Then, Spanish-American physicist Luis Walter Alverez (191188) isolated tritium, and found that it was radioactive. American chemist Willard Frank Libby (190880) discovered that it could be used to determine the age of water.

Chemically, tritium reacts in exactly the same manner as hydrogen, although slightly slower because of its greater atomic weight. A tritium atom has almost three times the mass of a regular hydrogen atom: the atomic weight of tritium is 3.016 whereas the atomic weight of hydrogen is 1.008. Tritium is radioactive, with a half-life of 12.26 years. Its nucleus emits a low-energy beta particle, leaving behind an isotope of helium, helium-3, that has a single neutron in its atomic nucleus. (The common isotope of helium, helium-4, contains two neutrons in its atomic nucleus.) No gamma rays, which are high-energy electromagnetic radiation, are emitted in the decay of tritium, so the radioactive decay of tritium is of little hazard to humans.

The heavier atomic weight of tritium has an effect on the physical properties of this hydrogen isotope. For example, tritium has a boiling point of 25K (-415° F; -248° C), compared with ordinary hydrogens boiling point of 20.4K (-423° F; -252.8° C). Molecules containing tritium show similar variances. For example, water made with tritium and having the formula T2O has a melting point of 40° F (4.5° C), compared with 32° F (0° C) for normal water.

Tritium was present in nature at very low levels, about one atom every 1018 atoms of hydrogen, before atmospheric nuclear bomb testing. It is produced in the upper atmosphere, as highly energetic neutrons in cosmic rays bombard nitrogen atoms, making a tritium atom and an atom of carbon-12:

N + neutron T+C.

Industrially, tritium is prepared by bombarding deuterium with other deuterium atoms to make a tritium atom and a regular hydrogen atom:

KEY TERMS

Beta particle One type of radioactive decay particle emitted from radioactive atomic nuclei. A beta particle is the same thing as an electron.

D+D T+H.

The resulting two types of hydrogen can be separated by distillation. Another way to make tritium is to bombard lithium-6 atoms (the less-abundant isotope of lithium) with neutrons, which produces a helium atom and a tritium atom:

Li + neutron T + He.

Due to the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere (before such testing was banned), the tritium content of the atmosphere rose to approximately 500 atoms per 1018, declining steadily even since the ban due to radioactive decay.

Tritium is used in nuclear fusion processes because it is easier to fuse tritium nuclei than either of the other isotopes of hydrogen. However, because of its scarcity, it is commonly used with deuterium in fusion reactions:

T+D He + neutron + energy.

This is the nuclear reaction that occurs in fusion bombs, or hydrogen bombs. Such weapons must be recharged periodically due to the radioactive decay of the tritium. Fusion reactions are also being used in experimental fusion reactors as scientists and engineers try to develop controllable nuclear fusion for peaceful power.

Tritium is used as a tracer because it is relatively easy to detect due to its radioactivity. In groundwater studies, tritium-labeled water can be released into the ground at one point, and the amount of tritium-labeled water that appears at other points can be monitored. In this way, the flow of water through the ground can be mapped. Such information is important when drilling oil fields, for example. Tritium can also be substituted for ordinary hydrogen in organic compounds, and it is used to study biological reactions. Because of its radioactivity, it is easy to follow the tritium as it participates in biochemical reactions. In this way, specific metabolic processes at the cellular level can be monitored. Tritium is also used to make glow-in-the-dark objects by mixing tritium-containing compounds with compounds like zinc sulfide, which emit light when struck by alpha or beta particles from nuclear decay.

See also Radioactive tracers.

Resources

BOOKS

Evans, E. A. Tritium and Its Compounds. New York: Wiley, 1974.

Herman, R. Fusion: The Search for Endless Energy. Oxford: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Miyamoto, Kenro. Plasma Physics and Controlled Nuclear Fusion. Berlin, Germany, and New York: Springer, 2005.

Rittner, Don. Encyclopedia of Chemistry. New York: Facts on File, 2005.

Romer, A. Radioactivity and the Discovery of Isotopes. New York: Dover, 1970.

Siekierski, Slawomir. Concise Chemistry of the Elements. Chichester, UK: Horwood Publishing, 2002.

Tro, Nivaldo J. Introductory Chemistry. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2006.

David W. Ball

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Tritium

Tritium

Tritium is an isotope of the chemical element hydrogen . It has not only a single proton but also two neutrons in the nucleus of its atoms . Although technically it is still the element hydrogen, it has its own chemical symbol, T. Chemically, tritium reacts in exactly the same manner as hydrogen, although slightly slower because of its greater atomic weight . A tritium atom has almost three times the mass of a regular hydrogen atom: the atomic weight of tritium is 3.016 whereas the atomic weight of hydrogen is 1.008. Tritium is radioactive, with a half-life of 12.26 years. Its nucleus emits a low-energy beta particle, leaving behind an isotope of helium, helium-3, that has a single neutron in its atomic nucleus. (The common isotope of helium, helium-4, contains two neutrons in its atomic nucleus.) No gamma rays, which are high-energy electromagnetic radiation , are emitted in the decay of tritium, so the radioactive decay of tritium is of little hazard to humans.

The heavier atomic weight of tritium has an effect on the physical properties of this hydrogen isotope. For example, tritium has a boiling point of 25K (-415°F; -248°C), compared with ordinary hydrogen's boiling point of 20.4K (-423°F; -252.8°C). Molecules containing tritium show similar variances. For example, water made with tritium and having the formula T2O has a melting point of 40°F (4.5°C), compared with 32°F (0°C) for normal water.

Tritium was present in nature at very low levels, about 1 atom every 1018atoms of hydrogen, before atmospheric nuclear bomb testing. It is produced in the upper atmosphere, as highly energetic neutrons in cosmic rays bombard nitrogen atoms, making a tritium atom and an atom of carbon-12.

Industrially, tritium is prepared by bombarding deuterium with other deuterium atoms to make a tritium atom and a regular hydrogen atom:

The resulting two types of hydrogen can be separated by distillation. Another way to make tritium is to bombard lithium-6 atoms (the less-abundant isotope of lithium ) with neutrons, which produces a helium atom and a tritium atom:

Due to the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere (before such testing was banned), the tritium content of the atmosphere rose to ~500 atoms per 1018, declining steadily even since the ban due to radioactive decay.

Tritium is used in nuclear fusion processes because it is easier to fuse tritium nuclei than either of the other isotopes of hydrogen. However, because of its scarcity, it is commonly used with deuterium in fusion reactions:

This is the nuclear reaction that occurs in fusion bombs, or hydrogen bombs. Such weapons must be recharged periodically due to the radioactive decay of the tritium. Fusion reactions are also being used in experimental fusion reactors as scientists and engineers try to develop controllable nuclear fusion for peaceful power.

Tritium is used as a tracer because it is relatively easy to detect due to its radioactivity. In groundwater studies, tritium-labeled water can be released into the ground at one point, and the amount of tritium-labeled water that appears at other points can be monitored. In this way, the flow of water through the ground can be mapped. Such information is important when drilling oil fields, for example. Tritium can also be substituted for ordinary hydrogen in organic compounds and used to study biological reactions. Because of its radioactivity, it is easy to follow the tritium as it participates in biochemical reactions. In this way, specific metabolic processes at the cellular level can be monitored. Tritium is also used to make "glow-in-the-dark" objects by mixing tritium-containing compounds with compounds like zinc sulfide, which emit light when struck by alpha or beta particles from nuclear decay.

See also Radioactive tracers.


Resources

books

Evans, E.A. Tritium and its compounds. New York: Wiley, Inc., 1974.

Herman, R. Fusion: The Search for Endless Energy. Oxford: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Parker, Sybil, ed. McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Chemistry. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 1999.

Romer, A. Radioactivity and the Discovery of Isotopes. New York: Dover, 1970.


David W. Bal

KEY TERMS

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Beta particle

—One type of radioactive decay particle emitted from radioactive atomic nuclei. A beta particle is the same thing as an electron.

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"Tritium." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Tritium." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 22, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tritium

"Tritium." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. . Retrieved November 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tritium

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Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

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