Attribution: LIFE, eds. MATTER. LIFE Science Library
Named after Poland, native country of Madam Curie. Polonium, also called Radium F, was the first element discovered by Curie in 1898 while seeking the cause of radioactivity of pitchblend from Joachimsthal, Bohemia. The electroscope showed it separating with bismuth.
In 1934, scientists discovered that when they bombarded natural bismuth (209Bi) with neutrons, 210Bi, the parent of polonium, was obtained. Milligram amounts of polonium may now be prepared this way, by using the high neutron fluxes of nuclear reactors.
Because almost all alpha radiation is stopped within the solid source and its container, giving up its energy, polonium has attracted attention for uses as a lightweight heat source for thermoelectric power in space satellites.
Polonium can be mixed or alloyed with beryllium to provide a source of neutrons. The element has been used in devices for eliminating static charges in textile mills, etc.; however, beta sources are both more commonly used and less dangerous. It is also used on brushes for removing dust from photographic films. The polonium for these is carefully sealed and controlled, minimizing hazards to the user.
Twenty five isotopes of polonium are known, with atomic masses ranging from 194 to 218. Polonium-210 is the most readily available. Isotopes of mass 209 (half-life 103 years) and mass 208 (half-life 2.9 years) can be prepared by alpha, proton, or deuteron bombardment of lead or bismuth in a cyclotron, but these are expensive to produce.
Metallic polonium has been prepared from polonium hydroxide and some other polonium compounds in the presence of concentrated aqueous or anhydrous liquid ammonia. Two allotropic modifications are known to exist.