What is Berkelium?

Mary McMahon

Berkelium is a metallic chemical element classified in the actinide series on the periodic table of elements. It does not exist naturally, though various isotopes and compounds of berkelium have been produced in laboratories. Since the element is rare and difficult to create, it has no commercial uses, although it does crop up in research occasionally. Berkelium is produced by neutron bombardment of other elements, typically americium.

Sather Tower at the University of California, Berkeley. Berkelium was named for the university.
Sather Tower at the University of California, Berkeley. Berkelium was named for the university.

The appearance of berkelium is not known, since no one has managed to isolate the element in a pure form. It is presumed to silvery-gray, like its neighbors on the periodic table, and it is reactive, so it probably forms a film of oxidation when exposed to air. Berkelium is certainly radioactive, and it appears to have two allotropic forms, meaning that its structure can vary in the solid state. It is identified with the symbol Bk on the periodic table of elements, and it has an atomic number of 97.

The element was discovered by a team of scientists led by Glenn Seaborg at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1949. Seaborg was also the man behind the discovery of several other actinides, including plutonium, curium, and nobelium, among many others; he won the Nobel Price in 1951 for his efforts. The team named the element for the university and city of its discovery.

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Like many other synthetically produced elements, berkelium has not been produced in very large amounts, because it is challenging to make and many of its isotopes have a very short half life. Because the element is both rare and unstable, no real uses have been developed for it beyond experimental chemistry. Scientists hope that by studying the element further, they may be able to identify additional isotopes, some of which could potentially be useful if they could be stabilized.

Like other radioactive elements, berkelium is potentially dangerous for human health. Most people, however, will never encounter this element, as it does not exist in nature. In labs where berkelium is synthesized, scientists take precautions to ensure that the element and its byproducts are safely handled. Berkelium does appear to have a potential to bioaccumulate in human tissue, serving no biological function but potentially causing health problems.

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