Scientists have suspected for a long time that plutonium has magnetism, but they were not able to prove it so far. Now two national laboratories from the Department of Energy have managed to confirm that plutonium is not devoid of magnetism.
Plutonium, which was produced for the first time in 1940, has an unstable nucleus which allows fission. That is why polonium is highly used for nuclear weapons and nuclear fuels. Even though its unstable nucleus is a very well-known fact, not the same thing can be said about the electronic cloud which surrounds the nucleus. The electric cloud is also unstable and all these combined make plutonium one of the most complex elements in the periodic table.
The two laboratories from the Department of Energy (Oak Ridge and Los Alamos) have observed for the first time the fluctuating magnetism which plutonium has. They were able to do this using a technique called neuron scattering. The paper was published in the journal Science Advances.
Plutonium is not devoid of magnetism, but its magnetism has a constant state of flux and that is why it is difficult to detect. Measuring neutrons the scientists were able to determine that fluctuations had a distinct number of electrons in the outer valence shell of the metal. And these fluctuations could clarify why plutonium is not magnetic. Since the sticking power of magnets is drawn from unpaired electrons plutonium’s electrons keep changing unpaired electron cannot line up in a magnetic field.
The lead author of the study, Marc Janoschek from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, explained that the electrons around the nucleus can arrange themselves around the plutonium ion and consequently produce magnetism, but other times they delocalize themselves from the ion and there is no magnetism. Janoschek explained that this is phenomenon is known as quantum mechanical superposition.
The findings explain the unusual changes in the plutonium levels in various phases. Professor Gabriel Kotliar from Rutgers University remarked:
“A predictive theory of materials is a big deal because we eventually will be able to simulate and predict properties of materials on a computer. For radioactive materials like plutonium, that’s a lot cheaper than doing an actual experiment.”
This valuable discovery could be applied in the fields of computers, materials and energy. The researchers could employ the mathematical technique used in this study to predict the behavior of other materials.
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