Chem Explorers

Unveiling the Secrets of Polonium: From Discovery to Applications

Introduction to Polonium

Polonium is a rare and highly toxic metalloid that belongs to the Chalcogen group of elements. Discovered in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie, Polonium is named after Marie’s homeland, Poland.

Although Polonium has many beneficial applications, it is best known for its use as a poison, including the assassination of Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at Polonium, its properties, production, and applications.

Definition and Classification of Polonium

Polonium is a radioactive metalloid with the atomic number 84 and the symbol Po. Metalloids are elements that possess some properties of both metals and non-metals, such as conductivity, flexibility, and brittleness. The Chalcogen group includes elements such as oxygen, sulfur, and selenium, which share similar chemical properties.

Isotopes and Stability of Polonium

Polonium has 33 known isotopes, of which Polonium-208, Polonium-209, and Polonium-210 are the most stable. Polonium-210 is the most commonly found isotope and also the most radioactive.

It decays through alpha decay to lead-206 with a half-life of 138.4 days. This decay releases alpha particles, which are two protons and two neutrons bound together, and also gamma rays, which are high-energy photons.

Due to its short half-life, Polonium-210 is highly radioactive and poses a significant health risk.

Occurrence and Production of Polonium

Natural Occurrence and Extraction of Polonium

Polonium occurs naturally in uranium ores, often in trace amounts. This presence is due to the decay of uranium-238, which produces small amounts of Polonium-210.

The extraction of Polonium from uranium ore is a costly and complex process that involves several steps. First, the uranium must be mined and then processed to produce yellowcake, a partially refined form of uranium.

The yellowcake is then treated with acid to produce a solution that contains both the uranium and Polonium. The Polonium is then separated from the uranium by a process called electrolysis, which uses an electrical current to attract and deposit the Polonium on a metal plate.

Artificial Production of Polonium

Polonium can also be artificially produced in nuclear reactors. The most common method involves irradiating Bismuth-209 with neutrons to produce Bismuth-210, which then undergoes beta decay to form Polonium-210.

The first commercial producer of Polonium was the Soviet Union, which used the element in various applications such as static eliminators, nuclear batteries, and heat sources for satellites. In recent times, Russia and the United States are the only countries that produce Polonium on a commercial scale.

Applications of Polonium

Polonium has several applications in a wide range of industries, including electronics, energy, and medicine. Due to its short half-life and high radioactivity, Polonium-210 is used in many instruments for static eliminators, X-ray and gamma ray sources, and nuclear batteries.

The high-energy alpha particles emitted by Polonium-210 can be used to generate a small amount of electricity by ionizing a semiconductor material. This property makes Polonium-210 an ideal choice for powering satellites and other remote devices.

In medicine, Polonium-210 is used in brachytherapy, a targeted form of radiation therapy used to treat cancer. In this procedure, a small amount of Polonium-210 is inserted into the tumor, where it releases high-energy alpha particles that kill cancer cells.

Due to its short half-life, Polonium-210 is eliminated from the body quickly, reducing the risk of long-term radiation exposure.


Polonium is a rare and highly toxic metalloid with many beneficial applications in various industries. From its discovery by Marie and Pierre Curie to its use as a poison, Polonium has been an element of interest to scientists and the public alike.

We hope this article has provided a clear understanding of this fascinating element, its properties, and its production and applications.

Discovery and Identification of Polonium

The discovery of Polonium should be credited to Marie and Pierre Curie, who in 1898, were in the process of studying radiation from uranium ore. They were able to extract an unknown substance from pitchblende that was highly radioactive, but different from any known element.

The substance was a shiny silver-blue color, and the Curies named it Polonium, in honor of Marie’s homeland, Poland. They observed that the new substance’s radiation levels were higher than those previously generated from any known element, which led them to conduct extensive experiments to analyze the properties of the new element.

Dmitri Mendeleev’s Prediction of Polonium

Before the discovery of Polonium, Dmitri Mendeleev predicted its existence in 1871. Mendeleev predicted that an element with an atomic mass of approximately 211 would be present in uranium ore alongside bismuth, based on the periodic table he created.

Mendeleev’s periodic table was arranged based on atomic mass, so he observed periodicity in the physical and chemical properties of elements, and this led him to predict the existence of elements that had not yet been discovered. Mendeleev’s predictions served as a guide for scientists to identify unknown elements.

Properties and Characteristics of Polonium

General Properties of Polonium

Polonium is a rare metalloid element that is solid at room temperature. The atomic number of Polonium is 84, and its symbol is Po. It is classified as a metalloid because it has properties that are characteristic of both metals and non-metals.

Polonium has 37 known isotopes, with the most common isotopes being Polonium-208, Polonium-209, and Polonium-210. The most stable allotrope of Polonium is a silvery-gray color and exists in a simple cubic structure.

In contrast, the most common form is produced in the form of dark silver crystals that are highly radioactive and decay quickly. Polonium is highly reactive, and its metallic form tarnishes quickly when exposed to air.

Physical Properties of Polonium

Polonium has a relatively low melting point of 254°C and boils at 962°C. The density of Polonium is 9.196 g/cm3, making it one of the densest elements known.

The metalloid has a metallic luster and has good electrical and thermal conductivity. Polonium is a solid that is relatively soft, malleable, and ductile.

Although it is considered a solid, it is also volatile, which means that it tends to evaporate quickly, even at room temperature.

Chemical Properties of Polonium

Polonium is chemically reactive and can form compounds in various oxidation states, with the most common state being +2. Since Polonium-210 is the most stable and common isotope of Polonium, we can focus on its chemical properties.

Polonium-210 is a highly radioactive isotope that undergoes alpha decay, a process that involves the emission of alpha particles from the nucleus of an atom. The decay process produces an alpha particle, or a Helium-4 nucleus, which has a positive charge of +2.

The emission of alpha particles from a radioactive element during decay can be hazardous to human health and can cause tissue damage and various cancers, including lung cancers. In conclusion, Polonium is a rare and highly toxic element discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898.

It has unique properties and characteristics that make it useful in several applications. Its highly radioactive isotopes make Polonium dangerous to handle and pose a significant health risk.

The discovery of Polonium and the work of scientists such as Dmitri Mendeleev have helped us better understand the nature of matter and its behavior, ultimately advancing our knowledge in science and technology.

Applications of Polonium

Polonium is a rare, highly radioactive, and toxic element that has several applications in various industries, including energy, medicine, and technology.

However, its hazardous nature means that its commercial uses are limited, and it is not commonly found in everyday products.

Commercial Uses of Polonium

Polonium-210 is one of the most commonly used isotopes of Polonium in commercial applications. Its unique properties make it an ideal alpha-particle emitter, which is useful in several industries.

One of the most common commercial uses of Polonium is in antistatic devices. Many electronic devices use static charges as part of their operation, and the build-up of static electricity can cause equipment failure or damage.

Polonium-210 is used in these devices as a way to neutralize the static electricity buildup and prevent damage to the equipment. Polonium has also been used in the nuclear industry as a neutron trigger.

Neutrons are one of the fundamental particles in the nucleus of an atom, and they are necessary to initiate nuclear fission reactions. Polonium-210 is used as the neutron source for these reactions as it emits alpha particles, which in turn knock neutrons out of beryllium atoms, resulting in a free neutron that can initiate fission reactions.

Potential Uses of Polonium

Polonium has several potential uses in various areas, although most of these are yet to be explored fully. One of the most promising applications of Polonium is as a power source for spacecraft.

Polonium-210’s alpha particles can be harnessed to create energy, which can be used to power satellites and other space probes for extended periods. Because it emits large amounts of alpha particles and has a short half-life, Polonium-210 can provide a compact and highly efficient power source, unlike conventional batteries, which may be too bulky for a spacecraft.

Polonium can also be used in advanced propulsion systems, although this is still in the experimental stage. It is proposed that Polonium-210 could be used to generate a stream of high-energy alpha particles that would ionize a propellant and create a reaction, propelling a spacecraft forward.

Polonium Poisoning

Toxicity of Polonium

Polonium is highly toxic, and exposure to its radioactive isotopes can lead to severe illness and death. The alpha particles emitted during decay can damage cells and tissues in the body, leading to a range of health effects, including cancer.

Polonium poisoning typically occurs through inhalation, ingestion, or exposure to an open wound or broken skin.

Effects of Polonium Exposure

The effects of Polonium exposure on human health depend on the route of exposure and the dose received. The most common health effects of Polonium exposure include cell damage, DNA damage, and cell reproduction problems.

Research has shown that even low doses of Polonium exposure can produce severe health effects, including cancer and radiation sickness. Symptoms of Polonium poisoning include nausea, vomiting, hair loss, and damage to the liver, kidneys, or heart.

Final Thoughts

Polonium is a fascinating but dangerous element that has several applications in various areas, including energy, medicine, and technology. Although its applications are limited due to its toxicity, its usefulness in various industries continues to be explored, leading to new and exciting discoveries.

It is vital to handle Polonium with great care, and exposure to its radioactive isotopes should be avoided at all costs.

Interesting Facts about Polonium

Polonium, a rare and highly toxic element, possesses unique properties and has been associated with some infamous incidents. From its crystal structure to its use in historical events, here are some interesting facts about Polonium.

Unique Properties of Polonium

One of the distinctive properties of Polonium is its crystal structure. Polonium has a simple cubic crystal structure, which means that its atoms are arranged in a pattern that forms a cube.

This arrangement gives Polonium its characteristic metallic luster and contributes to its stability. Polonium emits alpha particles, which are highly energetic and can ionize atoms.

These alpha particles possess greater mass and charge than other types of radiation, allowing them to interact with matter in unique ways. This property makes Polonium valuable in various applications, such as antistatic devices and neutron triggers.

Infamous Use of Polonium

One of the most infamous uses of Polonium is the assassination of Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Litvinenko was poisoned with a lethal dose of Polonium-210, which was presumably administered through a cup of tea.

The incident drew international attention and led to increased scrutiny of the illicit use of Polonium.

Representation of Polonium

Polonium has also made its way into popular culture and historical representations. One notable example is the Soviet Luna E-1 spacecraft.

Launched in 1959 as part of the Luna program, the Luna E-1 featured a spherical capsule named “Polonium” after the element. This spacecraft played a crucial role in the exploration of space and the race to the Moon between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Cost of Polonium

Due to its rarity and hazardous nature, Polonium is a highly valuable element. The most commonly traded isotope, Polonium-209, is one of the most expensive substances on Earth.

It is commonly priced at approximately $3,200 per microcurie. The cost is influenced by several factors, including the difficulties involved in extraction, purification, and the limited sources of production.

In conclusion, Polonium demonstrates unique properties and has been associated with notable events and representations throughout history. Its simple cubic crystal structure and the emission of highly energetic alpha particles contribute to its diverse applications.

The infamous use of Polonium in the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and its representation in the Luna E-1 spacecraft highlight the element’s impact on global events and popular culture. Lastly, the high cost of Polonium reflects its scarcity and the challenging process required for its extraction and purification.

In conclusion, Polonium is a rare and highly toxic element that possesses unique properties and has various applications. Its crystal structure, simple cubic arrangement, contributes to its stability and metallic luster.

Polonium’s infamous use in the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and representation in the Luna E-1 spacecraft are reminders of its historical significance. Moreover, its high cost reflects its scarcity and complex extraction process.

Through its intriguing properties and historical connections, Polonium serves as a reminder of the fascinating and sometimes dangerous nature of the elements that surround us.


  1. What is Polonium?

    Polonium is a rare and highly toxic metalloid element that belongs to the Chalcogen group.

  2. What are the uses of Polonium?

    Polonium has applications in antistatic devices and as a neutron trigger in the nuclear industry. It has potential uses in spacecraft and advanced propulsion systems.

  3. How was Polonium discovered?

    Polonium was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898 during their studies of uranium ore.

  4. Why is Polonium notorious?

    Polonium gained notoriety due to its involvement in the assassination of Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.

  5. What are the unique properties of Polonium?

    Polonium has a simple cubic crystal structure and emits highly energetic alpha particles.

  6. How much does Polonium cost?

    Polonium-209, the most commonly traded isotope, is one of the most expensive substances, priced at around $3,200 per microcurie.

Remember to handle Polonium with extreme caution, as it is highly toxic and poses a significant health risk!

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