What is Protactinium?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Protactinium is a very rare metallic chemical element which is classified among the actinides on the periodic table of elements. This element has few uses, since it is extremely rare and toxic and it is very short lived. At any given time, the world's supply is very small, making samples of this metal very costly; extraction processes to isolate the element are very expensive, and require large amounts of ore.

Protactinium is identified with the symbol Pa, and it has an atomic number of 91.
Protactinium is identified with the symbol Pa, and it has an atomic number of 91.

When protactinium is isolated, it proves to be a silvery metal which is highly ductile and very easy to work. The metal is also extremely toxic and very radioactive, and it quickly decays into actinium, another metallic chemical element. The chemical properties of protactinium appear to be similar to those of uranium, a close neighbor on the periodic table of elements. This element is identified with the symbol Pa, and it has an atomic number of 91.

This element was isolated in 1900 by William Crookes, but it took another 13 years for the element to actually be identified. Credit for the identification of the element is typically given to O.H. Göhring and Kasimir Fajans. They initially named the element brevium, after its short life, but the name was later changed to protoactinium to reflect the product of the decay process, and it was ultimately simplified to protactinium in 1949.

The primary use of this element is in experimental research. Some scientists believe that they may be able to find a stable isotope which could be used in more specific applications, and it has been surmised that the element could yield a potentially useful chain reaction. Protactinium also happens to be a superconductor at very low temperatures.

Consumers are unlikely to encounter protactinium because the element is so rare. People who work with the element are specially trained so that they know how to handle it and deal with its assorted health risks. The toxicity of the metal can cause organ and tissue damage, and because it is highly radioactive, it can cause an assortment of radiation-related health problems, from radiation sickness to death. Given that protactinium is only really seen in nuclear research, the people who handle it are well aware of the safety precautions they need to observe.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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