Californium (symbol: Cf; atomic number: 98) is a radioactive metallic and actinide element made by the bombardment of curium with helium-4 atoms (i.e., alpha particles). Named after the State of California and the University of California, it is also notable for other qualities. For one thing, it is the element with the second-highest atomic mass – einsteinium has the highest – of all the synthetic elements produced in sufficiently large amounts that can be seen with the naked eye. For another thing, it is the sixth trans-uranium element that scientists were able to synthesize.
The element, particularly Californium 252, is also a valuable trading commodity. In fact, it’s considered as the most expensive chemical because each gram costs a cool $27 million! Think of it this way: Californium is the heaviest element that naturally occurs on our planet and its price reflects such a heavyweight status, especially when it’s synthesized for use in nuclear processes.
Below is the historical Californium price per microgram.
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On or around 9 February 1950, Stanley G. Thompson, Albert Ghiorso, Kenneth Street, Jr., and Glenn T. Seaborg synthesized californium at the University of California Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley. But it was only on 17 March 1950 when the team announced its discovery. The team were only able to produce approximately 5,000 atoms of the element with the atoms only having a half-life of 44 minutes.
In 1954, scientists at the National Reactor Testing Station’s Materials Testing Reactor in eastern Idaho announced their achievement – they were able to produce the first weighable quantities of the element. By 1958, scientists were successful in the experimentation of concentrated californium, which was followed by the isolation of the isotopes californium-249 to californium-252 from a plutonium-239 sample irradiated with neutrons. In 1960, scientists from the University of California’s Lawrence Radiation Laboratory – James Wallman and Burris Cunningham – created the first-ever californium compounds by treating the element with hydrochloric acid and steam.
By the 1960s, the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) located at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee began its production of small batches for scientific purposes. By 1995, the reactor was already producing 500 milligrams of the element on a yearly basis. The sale of plutonium by the United Kingdom to the United States was used in the production of the radioactive element.
In the 1970s, the price of californium-252 was $10 per microgram. The seller was the Atomic Energy Commission, which sold the element to academic and industrial buyers. Such is the difficulty in synthesizing californium-252 that only an average of 150 milligrams were shipped every year between 1970 and 1990.
Due to the implementation of the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, the Atomic Energy Commission was replaced by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The latter increased the price of californium-252 several times in the succeeding years such that by 1999, the price was $60 per microgram. The costs of transportation and encapsulation are not included in the price per microgram, thus, the actual costs was significantly higher.
Since the discovery of californium in 1950, scientists have only succeeded in producing just 8 grams of californium-252. For this reason, the element is considered as the most expensive of its kind, not to mention that its production, sale and use are highly regulated in most countries.
Use as an Investment
Due to its specialized applications, californium is also considered as the material of the near future. Most of the market demand for californium-252 is supplied by two major producers, namely, the Scientific Center of Atomic Reactors in Russia and the Oak Ridge Atomic Reactors in the United States. Interested organizations have to wait for a year or so for the element to be delivered due to the limited number of suppliers and the challenge of californium production.
Such scarcity makes californium one of the high-risk yet high-reward investments for high-flying investors. Many companies are already being established to meet the increasing demand for californium-252 investments but it’s always wise to exercise caution.
What It’s Used For
Californium-252 is valued because of its property as a strong neutron emitter, thus, its specialized applications.
- In nuclear reactors, it is used as a neutron start-up source and as a portable neutron source in detecting trace amounts of certain elements (i.e., neutron activation analysis).
- In the treatment of certain types of brain and cervical cancers in cases when radiation therapy has been ineffective.
- In the cement and coal industries particularly in bulk material and elemental coal analyzers.
- In educational establishments, such as universities, a trend that started in 1969 when the Savannah River Plant loaned 119 micrograms of californium-252 to the Georgia Institute of Technology.
The element is used in fuel rod scanners, portable metal detectors, and neutron radiography equipment in weapons and aircraft. It is also used in the production of other trans-uranium elements including lawrencium (i.e., the californium was bombarded with boron nuclei).