What is Californium Used For in Everyday Life?

Instructor: Matthew Bergstresser

Matthew has a Master of Arts degree in Physics Education. He has taught high school chemistry and physics for 14 years.

Californium is a man-made element that is formed from curium or plutonium. Californium has several uses, and in this lesson, we will go through these uses.


When you think of inventions, you may think of the cotton gin, the car, antibiotics, and elements. Elements? Yes, elements can be invented! Californium was invented by scientists in 1959 by bombarding curium atoms with alpha particles (helium nuclei). It can also be generated by allowing neutrons to penetrate plutonium atoms.

Isotopes are different versions of the same element. They have the same number of protons, but different numbers of neutrons giving them different atomic masses. Californium-252 (Cf-252) is one several isotopes of californium. You may be asking, ''what's the point of creating a new element?'' Well, in the case of Cf-252, there are many beneficial uses of the free neutrons it produces when it decays. Let's learn what Cf-252 is used for.

Uses of Californium

Neutrons in Nuclear Reactors

Nuclear power plants work on the principle of fission where free neutrons (neutrons outside of the nucleus) split atoms, which releases energy. To start the fission process in a reactor a steady supply of neutrons is needed. Cf-245 is a high quality source of neutrons. Think of Cf-245 supplying a ''jump-start'' to get a fission chain reactions going. It takes only 1 microgram (µg) of Cf-245 to produce 1.7 x 108 neutrons-per-minute.

The reactor pressure vessel (RPV) is where the radioactive fuel is located. Cf-245 is in this location to help jump-start the nuclear reaction.

Creating New Elements

In addition to being used in nuclear reactors to jump-start fission reactions, Cf-245 is used to create other elements. Scientists predicted an element with atomic number 118 could exist. They named this element ununoctium. Scientists fired calcium ions at Cf-252 to form ununoctium, and it worked! The name ununoctium was a place-holder name for the element with atomic number 118, and when it was actually formed, it was officially named oganesson (Og) after the Russian scientist, Yuri Oganessian, who did groundbreaking research in the creation of man-made elements.

Cancer Treatment and Research

Now we move from the nuclear reactor to the human body. Cf-245 is source of radiation for the treatment of a wide variety of cancers. The medical community was struggling to effectively treat cervical cancer using radiation therapy. When they started using Cf-245 to bombard tumors with neutrons, more lives were being saved. Cf-245 neutron therapy involves inserting a Cf-245 implant near the tumors so the neutrons strike the tumors more directly, which saves the healthy surrounding tissue from being damaged by the treatment. Think of this as using a fly swatter to kill a bug versus using filling the house with toxic gas to kill it.

Cf-245 is also used in cancer research. There are a few more uses of the free neutrons generated by Cf-245. They are all based on using the neutrons given off in the decay of Cf-245.

Neutron Activation Analysis

Neutron activation analysis (NAA) is a way to identify various materials based on the subject material being struck by free neutrons. This generates a radioactive isotope of the subject element that is unstable and decays. The products of that decay can be analyzed to identify the elements present in the subject material.

Moon and Earth Studies

An early use of NAA was the analysis of rocks brought back from the moon. It is also used to determine whether soil on Earth is contaminated, and if it is, what the contaminants are.

Moon rocks were analyzed using NAA with Cf-245 as the source of free neutrons

NAA can also be used to identify precious metals such as gold and silver in rock seams. It also is used to locate and analyze oil reserves, and to determine water levels in soils.

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