Uranium is the metallic element that fuels the nuclear power plants of the world. In the future, the countries with significant deposits of Uranium will become politically powerful, as the oil producing nations did in the past!

Yet strangely, Uranium had not been considered an important element when it was accidentally discovered in the year 1789! The German Chemist, Martin Klaproth was analyzing a sample of the heavy mineral ore “Pitchblende”, for the presence of silver.

Pitchblende, also called as “Black tin ore” was thought to be a compound of iron, zinc, and tungsten. But after months of diligent analysis, Klaproth found that it was a new element –very different from all the known elements. He named it after the recently discovered planet “Uranus” as “Uranium”.

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In fact uranium is more commonly found in nature than silver! It is dense and lustrous but tarnishes rapidly when exposed to Oxygen. Ironically, this precious element was used only for making yellow paint and for colouring glass and chinaware for over a century.

In 1896, Pitchblende was found to be radioactive, but again, the scientists dismissed it as of very little importance or practical use. The potential of Uranium still remained unrecognized!

It was the husband and wife team of Pierre and Marie Curie, who in 1898 isolated “Radium” the element responsible for the radioactive property of Pitchblende. They obtained a mere one Centigram of Radium from one ton of pitchblende they processed!

Radium was highly radioactive, since its nucleus was unstable and broke down, releasing minute particles and electromagnetic energy.

Even though Uranium was also radioactive in nature, it went unnoticed for a long time. With respect to their radio activities, Radium and Uranium can be compared to a Search light and a candle flame.

One ton of pitchblende gave only a fraction of a gram of Radium but half a ton of Uranium—then considered as a useless by-product!

The break through came only in 1938, when it was proved that Uranium atom when bombarded by neutrons, split into two parts releasing fresh neutrons. Thus a
“Chain-reaction” can take place, resulting in the “nuclear fission” or breaking of Uranium atoms.

When the chain reaction takes place in controlled conditions, it is a nuclear reactor which can provide us limitless energy. But if the rate of fission is not controlled, it becomes a deadly and destructive weapon called Atom bomb.

So “The Ugly duckling” Uranium, once thought as a mere useless by product has now emerged as the “Dazzling Swan”, wielding untold power over the destiny of Humanity.

Visalakshi Ramani