Sunday, April 13, 2014

Does Plutonium Really Glow?

This is truly the stuff of movies and T.V. The big bad Plutonium is seen as an oozing green, glowing substance. The question is, does Plutonium actually glow like that?

In short, the answer is not really. Plutonium can give off light through intense radioactivity, though. To be radioactive means the substance is unstable and its atoms fall apart into smaller elements. Energy is released in these decays. Plutonium is artificial, partly the reason why it is so intensely radioactive. Past the radioactivity, Plutonium is also pyrophoric. This means that small pieces of it will burst into flames. Iron is pyrophoric, which is why it sparks when hit. Plutonium's pyrophoric qualities and intense radioactivity make it warm or even glowing hot. So Plutonium can glow red in some cases. But in reality, Plutonium is a silvery colored metal that is intensely radioactive, and not a green ooze.
A red hot pellet of pure Plutonium. 

There are some elements that do glow some really cool colors. Einsteinium, another man made element, will glow blue entirely on its own. This is truly a remarkable quality. You don't see copper glowing blue in the dark. In fact, you don't see most of the 92 natural elements glowing on their own (Minus phosphorous).
Einsteinium metal, glowing from its intense radioactivity. 
Curium is yet another man made element that glows. 

Curium glowing, this time a nice purple color. 
Plutonium, Einsteinium and Curium make some very intriguing and beautiful displays of light. Unfortunately, they will never make their way into the market as nuclear powered lava lamps.