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Uranium is a silvery white metal and is number 92 on the table of periodic elements. It is a well-known element because of its radioactive properties which are used in nuclear reactor powered by nuclear fission. We know that this element is very sought after as source of power by many countries wanting to shift from oil and fossil fuel based economies. So where is Uranium located and how do miners harvest it?
To understand how it is found we need to learn about how it was discovered. Uranium was first discovered by German chemist martin Heinrich Klaproth in 1749 when he was heat treating Minerals. He named the new mineral produced Uranium. The first pure sample of Uranium metal was produced in 1841 by Eugène-Melchior Péligot an analytical chemist who was heat treating Uranium tetrachloride. Demand for Uranium outside its more mundane uses as a window dye was initiated by the discovery of its fissile nuclear properties by Enrico Fermi. Mr. Fermi would go on to lead the Manhattan Project in 1942 that lead to the creation of nuclear weapons and reactors. When the energy it produced was realized the demand for Uranium immediately increased.
So where is Uranium located? In space Uranium is formed naturally occurring in supernovas. However since we can’t even travel to the nearest star it is just a minor fact. On Earth Uranium is surprisingly plentiful for a heavy metal. In fact estimate place the Earth’s supply of Uranium at 30 times that of Silver. This is because Uranium can be found in topsoil anywhere on the planet as well as in the mantle. Scientist even theorize that the natural decay of Uranium and other radioactive elements is what heats the Earth’s core and mantle causing convection currents in the magma and creating plate tectonics.
Uranium can be found as part of a lot of different minerals such as uranite. The element rarely occurs in its pure form. Even then the more fissile kinds of isotopes aren’t plentiful in nature. Uranium ore is the main source of uranium even though with the discovery of how wide spread it is in the Earth’s crust and scientist are looking for inexpensive ways to process it from the soil. In the meanwhile Uranium ore can be found in mines in Canada, Russia, and in Sub-Saharan Africa.
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Atom. Listen here, Episode 164: Inside the Atom.