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Chemical Elements


actinide series, Scandinavian mythology, types of reactors, mass number, magnesium alloys

Thorium, symbol Th, radioactive metallic element with an atomic number of 90. Thorium is a member of the actinide series of the periodic table. The element was named after Thor, the god of thunder in Scandinavian mythology.

Thorium was discovered in 1828 by the Swedish chemist Baron Jons Jakob Berzelius. The element is dark in color, slowly attacked by water, soluble in hydrochloric and sulfuric acids, and slightly soluble in nitric acid. It ranks about 39th in abundance among the elements present in Earth’s crust. Thorium melts at about 1750°C (about 3182°F), boils at about 4788°C (about 8650°F), and has a specific gravity of 11.7. The atomic weight of thorium is 232.04.

Small quantities of thorium are found in thorite, or thorium silicate; in orangite, a variety of thorite; and in thorianite, a radioactive mineral composed of thorium oxide and uranium. The larger deposits occur mainly as thorium oxide, ThO2, in the monazite sands of India and Brazil.

Thorium has isotopes ranging in mass number from 212 to 236. Thorium-232 occurs naturally, has a half-life of about 14 billion years, and is the first member of the radioactive-decay series, ending with the stable lead isotope lead-208. Thorium is currently important as a potential atomic-fuel source, because bombardment of thorium-232 by slow neutrons yields the fissile isotope uranium-233. This process is comparable to the process by which fast neutrons “breed” fissile plutonium-239 from nonfissile uranium-238. The thorium-uranium fuel cycle is being studied by scientists as an alternative to the uranium-plutonium fuel cycle. Two types of reactors, the molten-salt breeder reactor and the light-water breeder reactor, are being considered. These programs may make available for power production the United States thorium-fuel reserves, which represent a source of energy many times greater than the known coal, oil, and natural-gas reserves of the country. Thorium metal is used in magnesium alloys and as a stabilizing component of electronic tubes. Thorium oxide is used in light filaments and electrodes and also as a catalyst.


Suchy, John T., M.A.

Research Communications Scientist, Battelle Memorial Institute.

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