Thorium: Th(e) Best Element

Chemistry- Waz

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Discovery of Thorium

Thorium was discovered in 1828 by a Swedish chemist named Jöns Jacob Berzelius. Berzelius was given a sample of the element by the Reverend Has Morten Thrane Esmark, who had an idea that the element was yet to be discovered. The element was later named after the Norse god, Thor. However, Berzelius did not know that it was radioactive, it was Marie Curie that discovered thorium's radioactivity. Thorium decays using alpha particles which are less biologically hazardous than beta particles. In half-life, thorium would take roughly 14,050,000,000 years to decay its most stable isotope into Radium-228.
Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR): Energy for the Future?

Uses of Thorium

Thorium is currently a common agent in coatings. Seen in our everyday lives, it is used to coat tungsten filaments in incandescent light bulbs. Also, as early as 1939, high quality camera lenses were thoriated, meaning they were coated in thorium oxide. This was done to allow for better colour and a clearer image with a lighter, thinner, more portable lens. However, this lens is slightly radioactive so they were discontinued.


At the moment, nuclear engineers have their eye on thorium as a substitution for uranium in the process of creating nuclear energy. In the 1960s, there was a experiment done at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory where a molten salt thorium reactor was designed and tested. The experiment displayed that the creation of a larger scale molten salt reactor was feasible; it also displayed some concerning yet solvable safety issues. Thorium-232 is highly fissionable (has the ability to decay into two parts) therefore through the process of shooting neutrons with an energy level of 1 MeV at a particle of thorium-232, it can split, creating heat energy to power a turbine. Naturally, the process is more complicated than this. This process does not use fuel of any sort, but molten salt instead which reduces the risk of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster or the Chernobyl disaster. It also drastically reduces the radioactive waste which is biologically harmful.

Another use for thorium is in thorium dating. Thorium dating is the geological process of finding the ages of strata or rock layers. Thorium is very common in dirt, and how much it has decayed can be used to find the age of the atom, therefore the age of the strata. This is useful for archaeology to date the grown in which an artifact was found. It is also used to biology when dealing with extinct life forms, or transitional life forms to assist in proving evolution.

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Thorium in Nature

In nature, the most common isotope of the element is thorium-232. However, thorium can also appear in small clusters in different isotopes. In nature, thorium is a silvery metal which is softer than steel. Thorium is quite abundant in nature as it makes up 0.0007% of the earth's crust. In fact, America is estimated to be sitting on roughly 595,000 tonnes of it! So why aren't we mining it?

Thorium is extremely costly to harvest and process. Processing thorium requires many steps, not just digging it out of the ground. The element is often found in monazite sand beaches, especially in India. Thorium makes up roughly 3-5% of monazite. When mined, silica, magnetite, ilmenite, zircon, garnet, and other minerals are gathered alongside it. Monazite is separated from these through each mineral's different magnetic permiabilities, and their densities.

From there, the monizite is digested by an acidic solution at about 155-200 degrees Celsius, converting the phosphorus and thorium into be water soluble compound of thorium phosphate. This is a gelatin-like compound then becomes thorium hydroxide. Nitric acid is then added to remove the hydroxide and purify the thorium. This creates a thorium nitrate concentration. The thorium nitrate is then soaked in a diluted form of tributyl phosphate. A little while later, a diluted nitric acid concentrate is once again added to purify the thorium.

To put it into a form which is used by nuclear reactors, the thorium can be calcined to ThO2.

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Fun Facts!

In 2009 a digital artist named Loren Kulesus designed a thorium powered Cadillac concept car. This is a nuclear powered car which, on 8 grams of fuel, could potentially run for 100 years. At the moment, Laser Power Systems, a company based in Connecticut, is in the process of creating a model of the engine of this car. The engine weighs 500 lbs and runs like a molten salt reactor: there's a fission chamber, a coolant, and a turbine to power the car. This car is so abstract that it was nicknamed WTF.
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Works Cited

Gagnon, S. (Ed.). (n.d.). The Element Thorium. Retrieved December 9, 2015, from
Jefferson Lab website: http://education.jlab.org/itselemental/ele090.html

Morss, L. (2014, August 12). Thorium (Th). Retrieved December 9, 2015, from
Britannica website: http://www.britannica.com/science/thorium

Schilling, D. R. (2013, October 28). Thorium-Fueled Automobile Engine Needs
Refueling Once a Century. Retrieved December 9, 2015, from Industry Tap
website: http://www.industrytap.com/
thorium-fueled-automobile-engine-needs-refueling-once-a-century/15649/

Schultz, W. W. (n.d.). Thorium processing. Retrieved December 9, 2015, from
Britannica website: http://www.britannica.com/technology/thorium-processing

SciShow. (2012, June 19). Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR): Energy for
the Future? [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/
watch?v=nYxlpeJEKmw

Sorenson, K. (n.d.). LFTR Graphic [Illustration]. Retrieved from
http://thoriumsingapore.com/content/
index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=50&Itemid=37

Thoriated Camera Lens. (2009, January 20). Retrieved December 9, 2015, from Oak
Ridge Associated Universities website: https://www.orau.org/ptp/collection/
consumer%20products/cameralens.htm

Thorium. (2015, September). Retrieved December 9, 2015, from World Nuclear
Association website: http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/
current-and-future-generation/thorium/

Thorium-232 crystal [Photograph]. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://phys.org/news/
2012-09-uk-cautious-thorium-nuclear-fuel.html

Thorium Concept Cat [Image]. (2014, April 13). Retrieved from
http://energyfromthorium.com/2014/04/13/
mythology-thorium-cat-thorium-plasma-batteries/

Tungsten Filament [Photograph]. (2009, May 1). Retrieved from
https://www.newscientist.com/article/
dn17058-worlds-tiniest-lamp-spans-quantum-and-classical-physics/