Named after the Greek Prometheus, who, according to mythology, stole fire from heaven. In 1902 Branner predicted the existence of an element between neodymium and samarium, and this was confirmed by Moseley in 1914. In 1941, workers at Ohio State University irradiated neodymium and praseodymium with neutrons, deuterons, and alpha particles, and produced several new radioactivities, which most likely were those of element 61. Wu and Segre, and Bethe, in 1942, confirmed the formation; however, chemical proof of the production of element 61 was lacking because of the difficulty in separating the rare earths from each other at that time. In 1945, Marinsky, Glendenin, and Coryell made the first chemical identification by use of ion-exchange chromatography. Their work was done by fission of uranium and by neutron bombardment of neodymium.
Searches for the element on earth have been fruitless, and it now appears that promethium is completely missing from the earth's crust. Promethium, however, has been identified in the spectrum of the star HR465 in Andromeda. This element is being formed recently near the star's surface, for no known isotope of promethium has a half-life longer than 17.7 years. Seventeen isotopes of promethium, with atomic masses from 134 to 155 are now known. Promethium-147, with a half-life of 2.6 years, is the most generally useful. Promethium-145 is the longest lived, and has a specific activity of 940 Ci/g.
The element has applications as a beta source for thickness gages, and it can be absorbed by a phosphor to produce light. Light produced in this manner can be used for signs or signals that require dependable operation; it can be used as a nuclear-powered battery by capturing light in photocells which convert it into electric current. Such a battery, using 147Pm, would have a useful life of about 5 years. Promethium shows promise as a portable X-ray source, and it may become useful as a heat source to provide auxiliary power for space probes and satellites. More than 30 promethium compounds have been prepared. Most are colored.