Thorium is a naturally occurring radioactive chemical element with the symbol Th and atomic number 90. It was discovered in 1828 by the Norwegian mineralogist Morten ThraneEsmark and identified by the Swedish chemist JönsJakob Berzelius and named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder.
Thorium produces a radioactive gas, radon-220, as one of its decay products. Secondary decay products of thorium include radium and actinium. In nature, virtually all thorium is found as thorium-232, which undergoes alpha decay with a half-life of about 14.05 billion years. Other isotopes of thorium are short-lived intermediates in the decay chains of higher elements, and only found in trace amounts. Thorium is estimated to be about three to four times more abundant than uranium in the Earth’s crust, and is chiefly refined from monazite sands as a by-product of extracting rare earth metals.
Thorium was once commonly used as the light source in gas mantles and as an alloying material, but these applications have declined due to concerns about its radioactivity. Thorium is also used as an alloying element in nonconsumable TIG welding electrodes.
Canada, China, Germany, India, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States have experimented with using thorium as a substitute nuclear fuel in nuclear reactors. When compared to uranium, there is a growing interest in developing a thorium fuel cycle due to its greater safety benefits, absence of non-fertile isotopes and its higher occurrence and availability. India’s three stage nuclear power programme is possibly the most well known and well funded of such efforts.
Pure thorium is a silvery-white metal which is air-stable and retains its luster for several months. When contaminated with the oxide, thorium slowly tarnishes in air, becoming gray and finally black. The physical properties of thorium are greatly influenced by the degree of contamination with the oxide.
The purest specimens often contain several tenths of a percent of the oxide. Pure thorium is soft, very ductile, and can be cold-rolled, swaged, and drawn. Thorium is dimorphic, changing at 1360 °C from a face-centered cubic to a body-centered cubic structure; a body-centered tetragonal lattice form exists at high pressure with impurities driving the exact transition temperatures and pressures.
Powdered thorium metal is often pyrophoric and requires careful handling. When heated in air, thorium metal turnings ignite and burn brilliantly with a white light. Thorium has one of the largest liquid temperature ranges of any element, with 2946 °C between the melting point and boiling point. Thorium metal is paramagnetic with a ground state of 6d27s2.