|Action and reaction|
|Spooky scary chemicals|
|Er, who's got the pox?|
Uranium (U) is a radioactive heavy metal that occupies the 92nd spot in the Periodic Table, making it part of the actinide series of elements. Its applications present a curious duality. On one hand, it can be used to power nuclear reactors, creating nuclides for medicine and providing electricity to sustain civilization. On the other hand, it can also be used in nuclear bombs and as depleted uranium munitions, means for ending civilization. On a third, mutant hand (presumably from radiation), it can also be used to make some neat-looking glassware and ceramics and ascertain the absolute age of some of the oldest rocks on Earth.
The nuclear fuel cycle
Once extracted from the ground, uranium can be concentrated into yellowcake, converted into uranium hexafluoride (UF6), and then refined into pellets for a nuclear reactor. The specifics vary between each type. Some reactors require the uranium to undergo uranium enrichment first, while some don't require this step. There are also some reactors that don't even use uranium, though most do.
Once the uranium has been enriched enough, it will be capable of a massive chain reaction that will result in a deadly explosion, although the uranium used for nuclear power isn't anywhere near this level of enrichment. Larger-scale nuclear weapons use hydrogen fusion rather than the fission that was used during the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Degnen's Standard Radio-Active Solar Pads!
While the radioactivity craze of the 1910s-1930s focused mainly on radium, uranium also had its fair share of quackery. One of these was "Degnen's Standard Radio-Active Solar Pads", sold in three versions with (naturally) progressively higher prices: a $15 standard edition (later upped to $17.50), a $50 "Physicians Special", and a creatively named $100 "strong Physicians Special". While these pads contained radium at first, later models used carnotite, a uranium ore, ostensibly because it was more potent, but arguably because it was far cheaper.
All these versions were used the same way: the pad was left in sunlight to, supposedly, charge it with energy and then worn around the waist to "discharge...the lifegiving current through the blood and nervous system". The advertisements claimed this could aid in "95% of all human ills", and this was one of the many pieces of woo that Edgar Cayce endorsed. Suffice to say, neither radium nor uranium act like solar-powered batteries, or else uranium mining (especially heap leaching and open-pit mining) would be quite a bit more interesting, to say the least.
As a side note, Mr. (not Dr.) Degnen did in fact actually get tried—but not for fraud. See, in the 1920s, Degnen was dating an actress named Eloise Clement, and the two would stay up late in Degnen's lab "doing experiments". Their relationship ended with quite an ugly breakup in which Degnan found himself convicted of rape and assault with intent to murder. His conviction was later overturned, but by then, the radioactivity quackery craze had died down, and his company soon faded into obscurity.
In an interesting aversion of radiophobia, uranium is also used in homeopathy, in form of "uranium nitricum", aka uranyl nitrate or uranium nitrate oxide. Homeopaths often claim it can treat diabetes. For example, Similia India asserts that their uranium nitricum solution can help diabetics deal with increased blood sugar levels. Meanwhile, the Diabenex packaged by Apotheca Company doesn't directly state that it treats diabetes, but it very much implies it, because what it does state is that it can relieve abnormal blood sugar and feelings of fatigue after a meal, which just so happen to be symptoms of diabetes. Energique, Inc.'s Endopan HP does a similar tactic, only with increased thirst and urination.
There's also at least one homeopathic medication that claims to treat bedwetting.
Of dogs and diabetes: a brief history of uranium nitricum
Uranium nitricum's usage in homeopathy goes a fair bit back. In a monograph from the 1870s included in the second edition of Samuel Hahnemann's Materia Medica, homeopath E. T. Blake describes how a colleague of his noticed sugar in the urine of dogs given uranium nitricum, prompting him to conduct his own investigations into the matter.[notes 1] The funny thing is, even though Blake actually couldn't replicate the results of the aforementioned colleague, he still supported using it to treat diabetes anyways, an sentiment echoed in John Henry Clarke's own version of the Materia Medica.
Around the middle of the 20th century, a homeopathy company named Boericke & Tafel was producing vials containing uranium nitricum with a potentization rating of CM, meaning it was a 1:100 dilution repeated 100,000 times. Like any good quack, they claimed it could cure all sorts of ailments.[notes 2]
Uranium cards for cigarettes
Uranium quackery made a comeback in the tail end of the 20th century, when the NICO Clean(tm) Tobacco Card and the Nicotine Alkaloid Control (NAC) Plate surfaced in Japan. Both shared the same design: thin metal plates the size of credit cards, coated with low-grade uranium ore on one side. Smokers were instructed to stick the thing between the cigarette packet and the cellophane wrapping, ore-side facing the cigarettes, and the radiation from the card would supposedly reduce amount of nicotine and tar in the tobacco. It's not hard to see how a naive person might come up with the idea: after all, if radiation makes food safer, why not cigarettes? Unfortunately, it just doesn't work that way.
For one, the design of the cigarette and cigarette packet render it partially useless. Uranium primarily decays via alpha radiation. Alpha radiation cannot penetrate paper, and the cigarette packet is made out of paper (specifically cardboard), so if the product is used as described, none of the alpha particles would actually reach the cigarettes. Even if the card tucked was tucked into the box with the cigarettes, the cigarettes' paper wrapping would still block the alpha radiation.
Theoretically, it would be possible to reduce the amount of nicotine using gamma radiation but not in the way the NICO Clean and NAC cards do.
In uranium glass
Uranium used to be commonly added to glass, especially before the days when radioactivity was a known phenomenon. Uranium-infused glass has an oily luster, which is why it's also called "vaseline glass", was colored green or yellow, and glows under UV light. It was commonly used in vases, glassware, and even candy containers. Uranium glass would only start to become less common in the mid-twentieth century, when the potential harmful effects of radioactivity became well-known.
Uranium oxide was used as a ceramic glaze for quite a while, but production really pumped up in the 1920s as radium was becoming a fad, and a lot of uranium was found as a waste product from radium mining and so a use had to be found, although this had to be stopped during World War II as all uranium was diverted to the Manhattan Project. Fiesta Ware is infamous for using uranium in their glaze, resulting in it being radioactive — the red Fiesta Ware is by far the most dangerous, although the other colors won't harm you too much with their radioactivity alone. The big health hazard is that uranium has a similar toxicity to lead, and eating off of Fiesta Ware results in ingestion of some uranium, which is why it's advised that you don't use Fiesta Ware for dining.
As depleted uranium
Depleted uranium is a form of uranium that occurs as a byproduct of uranium enrichment and as one of the main products of reprocessing nuclear waste. It can be used a fuel for certain breeder reactors, and its immense density makes it useful for a variety of applications, such as in counterweights and, funnily enough, as shielding against radiation. In the wake of the Iraq War, there have been a lot of misconceptions about the health effects of depleted uranium munitions.
In radiometric dating
Since uranium decays into lead at a known rate, it's possible to ascertain the age of objects based on their ratio of uranium to lead. As this process takes millions upon millions of years to occur, this is often used for rocks rather than archeological artifacts. This also makes it pretty good evidence against a recent creation.
- Radium, one of the decay products of uranium and another radioactive element subject to woo.
- FAQ on radioactivity and nuclear technology
- Buy some uranium ore! Give Bob Lazar your money!
- ORAU Museum of Radiation and Radioactivity's online collection. Learn about old radiation monitoring equipment. Study artifacts and photographs from the early days of nuclear science and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Laugh at the silly brand names (NUTEX condoms, anyone?) and copious amounts of quackery!
- A common symptom of diabetes mellitus is glycosuria, excess glucose in the patient's urine. Before the advent of modern glucose testing, various chemicals, such as Fehling's solution and Benedict's reagent, were used to detect excess sugar in urine, and before that, doctors would stick a finger in a sample of urine and lick it, since glycosuria also causes a patient's urine to taste sweet. While Blake specifies that he used Fehling's solution to detect glycosuria when trying to confirm his colleague's observations, he doesn't mention how his colleague originally detected it. Thus it's possible this whole concept of uranium nitricum curing diabetes was prompted by someone drinking dog piss.
- They also made similar line containing "uranium aceticum". The composition is unknown.
- Degnen's Standard Radio-Active Solar Pad (1915-1930), Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) Museum of Radiation and Radioactivity. Retrieved November 5th, 2021.
- National Center for Biotechnology Information (2021). PubChem Compound Summary for CID 24933, Uranium nitrate oxide (UO2(NO3)2). Retrieved November 6, 2021 from https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Uranium-nitrate-oxide-_UO2_NO3_2.
- The Hahnemann Materia Medica. United Kingdom: H. Baillière. 1871.
- Clarke, John Henry (1905). Materia Medica.
- DIABENEX- aceticum acidum, colchicum autumnale, lacticum acidum, lycopodium clavatum, phosphoricum acidum, phosphorus, syzgium jambolanum, uranium nitricum liquid. Package insert. Apotheca Company; 2010.
- Mayo Clinic. Diabetes. Retrieved November 9th, 2021.
- BEDWETTING- belladonna, cantharis, causticum, cina, equisetum hyemale, ingatia amara, physalis alkekengi, sepia, uranium nitricum, verbascum thapsus, liquid. Package insert. Liddell Laboratories, Inc; 2020.
- Uranium Homeopathic Medicine (ca. 1940s), Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) Museum of Radiation and Radioactivity. Retrieved November 6th, 2021.
- Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) Museum of Radiation and Radioactivity, NAC Plate (ca. 1990). Retrieved November 9, 2021.
- Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) Museum of Radiation and Radioactivity, The Nico Clean Tobacco Card (ca. 1990s). Retrieved November 9, 2021.
- Argonne National Laboratory, Radioactivity and Radiation. Retrieved November 9th, 2021.
- US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Alpha particle. Retrieved November 9th, 2021.
- When Uranium Glass Was a Hot Ticket Item, C.S. Voll, History of Yesterday 22 October 2021
- How Radioactive Is Fiesta Ware?, Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D., ThoughtCo 1 February 2021