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Thermite.JPG

OK, so I spruced up the sublimely boring image accompanying this interesting question over at Popular Science with a picture of the thermite reaction. Sorry, but I couldn’t find a picture of burning plutonium. C’mon Wikipedia! What’s taking so long?

The real answer, it turns out, is something like “at first it would be very exciting, and then it would be very boring.” Here’s a characteristically droll quote from my old quantum mechanics instructor, John Stanton:

The oxygen gas would react with lithium or sodium and ignite, raising the temperature in the container to the point that all hell would break loose. Powdered graphite carbon would ignite, too. There are roughly 25 radioactive elements, and they would make your flaming stew a little dangerous. Flaming plutonium is a very bad thing.

Of the rather boring low-energy end products, Stanton says:

“Thermodynamics wins again. Things will always achieve equilibrium, and in this case that’s a mix of common, stable compounds.”

[via Neatorama]

Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I write for MAKE, serve as Technical Editor for MAKE magazine, and develop original DIY content for Make: Projects.


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Comments

  1. coreyl says:

    > Flaming plutonium is a very bad thing.

    See, now this is why I read Make. It’s those little practical tips that just make life a little bit easier.

  2. Steve Hoefer says:

    Ah, the Internet has let me down. Virtually every search result for “flaming plutonium” leads to the PopSci article. And no related images at all!

    Come on, we’re innovative people around here, we can change this!

    1. capt.tagon says:

      Read up on the Windscale Carbon Pile Nuclear Reactor near Sellafield, England. It involved lots of burning carbon, melted uranium and probably plutonium as its purpose was to create it for the British nuclear weapons program. I couldn’t find any pictures, though, so no such luck yet.

    2. MadRat says:

      Glad I saw your comment. While I don’t know where you’d find video of burning plutonium you can see a still picture of it on Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plutonium

      During the Cold War the United States had a plutonium recycling center, named Rocky Flats, near Boulder, Colorado. Twice the place caught fire from burning plutonium, once in the 1950s and once in the 1960s. I read how one guy said, as he was running out of the building he looked over at a plutonium storage room and saw glowing drops of molten lead, falling of the ceiling like rain. There’s a few pictures of the damage here: http://www.deq.idaho.gov/inl_oversight/waste/buried_waste.htm

  3. Anonymous says:

    C’est Dommage

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