Categories
IYPT Elements

IYPT 2019 Elements 094: Plutonium: Nuclear weapons and space probe power source

Element 94 in our International Year of the Periodic Table series is plutonium. Plutonium is used in nuclear weapons and has also powered famous space probes in journeys out of our solar system.

Plutonium-239 is used in nuclear weapons. Fission of 1 kilogram of plutonium releases over 23 million kilowatt-hours of energy. To put that in perspective, every time you boil an electric kettle, it uses around 0.1 kilowatt-hours of energy – so with the energy released by the fission of a kilogram of plutonium, you could boil your kettle 230 million times. Alternatively, it’d charge your phone over 11 million times.

As well as its destructive abilities, another of plutonium’s isotopes, plutonium-238, has been used in power sources for the probes that explore deep space. Both of the renowned Voyager probes are powered by plutonium power sources, as was Cassini, which imaged Saturn, and New Horizons, which brought us high-resolution images of the element’s namesake, Pluto, several years ago.

Remember, you can keep track of all of the previous entries in this series on the site here, or on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s dedicated page.