Radium: Definition, Facts & Uses

Instructor: Marauo Davis

Marauo has taught both chemistry and mathematics in the high school and college setting and has a Ph.D. degree in chemistry.

Learn all about radium, the chemical element that actually glows green. Discover some facts about radium as well as some of its uses. Then test what you've learned with a quiz.

What is Radium?

Think back to when you were a kid. When you first thought about chemicals, did you wonder if they all had the ability to glow green or turn you into a radioactive monster? It makes sense if you did -- cartoons and comics tended to portray chemicals this way. Obviously, you now know that not all chemicals glow or have radioactive properties. But some do! One chemical that actually glows green is radium.

Radium, not to be confused with radon, is a chemical element with atomic number 88 and chemical abbreviation Ra. On the periodic table, it can be found as the final element of group two. This group of elements are known as the alkaline earth metals. Members of this group are typically all very shiny, silvery-white elements that can be very reactive upon interaction with water and air. Also, these elements have an oxidation number of +2, meaning that they are able to readily lose the two electrons in their outer shell.

Pure radium can be found in nature but readily reacts with nitrogen in air to form a black, radium nitride complex. Radium was first discovered in 1898 by husband and wife, Marie and Pierre Curie. At the time of its discovery, the Curies were unaware of its potential hazard and radioactive nature. So now that you know the basics of radium, what can further be said about the element and its uses?

periodic table

Facts about Radium

Radium is one of the those elements that can make you glow! Yes, radium is highly radioactive. Radioactive means that the element's nucleus is unstable and readily breaks down. In the case of radium, when it decomposes, it causes radioluminescence. This so-called radioluminescence process is the act of glowing. Contrary to some popular thought, most elements actually do not glow, but radium is one of those that does!

Confirming the periodic trend down the row in the periodic table, both the boiling point and melting point of radium are slightly less than that of barium. Radium has an astonishing 33 radioactive isotopes. An isotope is simply a naturally occurring form of the same element. The key difference with an isotope, however, is that the number of neutrons changes with each isotope.

Radium is not an element that is essential for daily life -- and given the fact that it literally glows, that is probably a good idea. Could you imagine if we all needed radium to survive? We might all be walking around glowing! In fact, the amount of radium that can be found in earth's crust is very small. For example, one ton of material from the earth's crust yields about one seventh of a gram of radium. For comparison, think of it this way: one ton is equivalent about 907,185 grams. So in that much material, you can only retrieve 0.143 grams of radium.


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