What is curium used for?


Quick Answer

Curium provides alpha particles used in x-ray spectrometers aboard robotic spacecraft like the Mars Rover. Highly radioactive and difficult to produce, curium has no real commercial application except for research and instrumentation.

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Full Answer

Curium was named for Pierre and Marie Curie. It has an atomic number of 96, which makes it one of the transuranic elements that follow uranium in the periodic table. Curium does not occur in nature, so its production requires nuclear reactors and an elaborate synthesis process. As a result, only a few kilograms exist in total since its discovery in 1944, and some isotopes of curium are so rare only a few milligrams exist today. Curium emits mostly alpha particles (helium nuclei) but also can emit beta particles and gamma rays, making it toxic unless handled properly.

Laboratory uses include radionuclide research and production of plutonium isotopes for thermoelectric generators for pacemakers. Spacecraft carry x-ray spectrometers that use the curium alpha particle emissions to bombard samples and analyze the particles scattered. Compact and lightweight curium x-ray spectrometers work well on spacecraft. First used by Surveyor spacecraft on the moon in 1966, these devices have travelled to Mars and will be part of a comet landing project in 2014.

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