Curium is a metallic chemical element classified among the actinides on the periodic table of elements. It is also considered a transuranic element, meaning that it has an atomic number higher than that of uranium. Transuranic elements share a number of properties, most notably radioactivity and extreme instability, which make them difficult to identify and study. Like other transuranic elements, curium must be synthetically produced, as it does not exist in nature, and typically only small amounts are produced at once since the process is painstaking and expensive.
Chemically, curium actually shares a number of traits with the rare earth elements. It is silvery in color, and very reactive. It is also extremely radioactive, tending to bioaccumulate in bone tissue, interfering with the production of red blood cells. On the periodic table of elements, curium is identified with the symbol Cm and the atomic number of 96.
Credit for the discovery of this element belongs to a team of scientists at the University of California, Berkeley. The men were led by Glenn Seaborg, a nuclear chemist who contributed a great deal to the understanding of the transuranic elements by identifying and isolating many of these elements. Their discovery took place in 1944, when they bombarded plutonium with alpha particles to synthesize curium.
This element is named for Pierre and Marie Curie, two famous scientists who did a great deal of work with radioactive material in the early twentieth century. The rarity of curium has meant that it is only used in research, with no practical commercial applications. Scientists suspect that the element could at some point be utilized as a source of fuel, and its isotopes might have some potential uses, but these uses have not as yet been identified. By researching curium, chemists can learn more about the element and its potential uses.
Because this element is radioactive, it does represent a human health risk. Fortunately, curium is so rare that most people will never be exposed to enough of it for health risks to be a concern. However, curium impurities in nuclear fuel can cause increased radiation exposure at nuclear power plants, which is why monitoring of such fuel is very important. In the laboratory setting, people usually work with such small amounts of this element that it does not pose a significant health risk, especially when handled with proper precautions.