Polonium | applications

Applications

Polonium-based sources of alpha particles were produced in the former Soviet Union.[57] Such sources were applied for measuring the thickness of industrial coatings via attenuation of alpha radiation.[58]

Because of intense alpha radiation, a one-gram sample of 210Po will spontaneously heat up to above 500 °C (932 °F) generating about 140 watts of power. Therefore, 210Po is used as an atomic heat source to power radioisotope thermoelectric generators via thermoelectric materials.[3][14][59][60] For example, 210Po heat sources were used in the Lunokhod 1 (1970) and Lunokhod 2 (1973) Moon rovers to keep their internal components warm during the lunar nights, as well as the Kosmos 84 and 90 satellites (1965).[57][61]

The alpha particles emitted by polonium can be converted to neutrons using beryllium oxide, at a rate of 93 neutrons per million alpha particles.[59] Thus Po-BeO mixtures or alloys are used as a neutron source, for example, in a neutron trigger or initiator for nuclear weapons[14][62] and for inspections of oil wells. About 1500 sources of this type, with an individual activity of 1,850 Ci (68 TBq), have been used annually in the Soviet Union.[63]

Polonium was also part of brushes or more complex tools that eliminate static charges in photographic plates, textile mills, paper rolls, sheet plastics, and on substrates (such as automotive) prior to the application of coatings.[64] Alpha particles emitted by polonium ionize air molecules that neutralize charges on the nearby surfaces.[65][66] Some anti-static brushes contain up to 500 microcuries (20 MBq) of 210Po as a source of charged particles for neutralizing static electricity.[67] In the US, devices with no more than 500 μCi (19 MBq) of (sealed) 210Po per unit can be bought in any amount under a "general license",[68] which means that a buyer need not be registered by any authorities. Polonium needs to be replaced in these devices nearly every year because of its short half-life; it is also highly radioactive and therefore has been mostly replaced by less dangerous beta particle sources.[3]

Tiny amounts of 210Po are sometimes used in the laboratory and for teaching purposes—typically of the order of 4–40 kBq (0.11–1.08 μCi), in the form of sealed sources, with the polonium deposited on a substrate or in a resin or polymer matrix—are often exempt from licensing by the NRC and similar authorities as they are not considered hazardous. Small amounts of 210Po are manufactured for sale to the public in the United States as 'needle sources' for laboratory experimentation, and they are retailed by scientific supply companies. The polonium is a layer of plating which in turn is plated with a material such as gold, which allows the alpha radiation (used in experiments such as cloud chambers) to pass while preventing the polonium from being released and presenting a toxic hazard. According to United Nuclear, they typically sell between four and eight such sources per year.[69][70]

Polonium spark plugs were marketed by Firestone from 1940 to 1953. While the amount of radiation from the plugs was minuscule and not a threat to the consumer, the benefits of such plugs quickly diminished after approximately a month because of polonium's short half-life and because buildup on the conductors would block the radiation that improved engine performance. (The premise behind the polonium spark plug, as well as Alfred Matthew Hubbard's prototype radium plug that preceded it, was that the radiation would improve ionization of the fuel in the cylinder and thus allow the motor to fire more quickly and efficiently.)[71][72]