Periodic Table > Plutonium


Some elements exist in several different structural forms, called allotropes. Each allotrope has different physical properties.

For more information on the Visual Elements image see the Uses and properties section below.



A vertical column in the periodic table. Members of a group typically have similar properties and electron configurations in their outer shell.

A horizontal row in the periodic table. The atomic number of each element increases by one, reading from left to right.

Elements are organised into blocks by the orbital type in which the outer electrons are found. These blocks are named for the characteristic spectra they produce: sharp (s), principal (p), diffuse (d), and fundamental (f).

Atomic number
The number of protons in an atom.

Electron configuration
The arrangements of electrons above the last (closed shell) noble gas.

Melting point
The temperature at which the solid–liquid phase change occurs.

Boiling point
The temperature at which the liquid–gas phase change occurs.

The transition of a substance directly from the solid to the gas phase without passing through a liquid phase.

Density (g cm−3)
Density is the mass of a substance that would fill 1 cm3 at room temperature.

Relative atomic mass
The mass of an atom relative to that of carbon-12. This is approximately the sum of the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus. Where more than one isotope exists, the value given is the abundance weighted average.

Atoms of the same element with different numbers of neutrons.

CAS number
The Chemical Abstracts Service registry number is a unique identifier of a particular chemical, designed to prevent confusion arising from different languages and naming systems.

Fact box

Group Actinides  Melting point 640°C, 1184°F, 913 K 
Period Boiling point 3228°C, 5842°F, 3501 K 
Block Density (g cm−3) 19.7 
Atomic number 94  Relative atomic mass [244]  
State at 20°C Solid  Key isotopes 238Pu, 239Pu, 240Pu 
Electron configuration [Rn] 5f67s2  CAS number 7440-07-5 
ChemSpider ID 22382 ChemSpider is a free chemical structure database


Image explanation

Murray Robertson is the artist behind the images which make up Visual Elements. This is where the artist explains his interpretation of the element and the science behind the picture.


The description of the element in its natural form.

Biological role

The role of the element in humans, animals and plants.

Natural abundance

Where the element is most commonly found in nature, and how it is sourced commercially.

Uses and properties

Image explanation
The image is inspired by Robert Oppenheimer’s quote, following the first atomic bomb test in the Nevada desert. ‘We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.’
A radioactive, silvery metal.
Plutonium was used in several of the first atomic bombs, and is still used in nuclear weapons. The complete detonation of a kilogram of plutonium produces an explosion equivalent to over 10,000 tonnes of chemical explosive.

Plutonium is also a key material in the development of nuclear power. It has been used as a source of energy on space missions, such as the Mars Curiosity Rover and the New Horizons spacecraft on its way to Pluto.
Biological role
Plutonium has no known biological role. It is extremely toxic due to its radioactivity.
Natural abundance
The greatest source of plutonium is the irradiation of uranium in nuclear reactors. This produces the isotope plutonium-239, which has a half-life of 24,400 years.

Plutonium metal is made by reducing plutonium tetrafluoride with calcium.
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Plutonium was first made in December 1940 at Berkeley, California, by Glenn Seaborg, Arthur Wahl, Joseph Kennedy, and Edwin McMillan. They produced it by bombarding uranium-238 with deuterium nuclei (alpha particles). This first produced neptunium-238 with a half-life of two days, and this decayed by beta emission to form element 94 (plutonium). Within a couple of months element 94 had been conclusively identified and its basic chemistry shown to be like that of uranium.

To begin with, the amounts of plutonium produced were invisible to the eye, but by August 1942 there was enough to see and weigh, albeit only 3 millionths of a gram. However, by 1945 the Americans had several kilograms, and enough plutonium to make three atomic bombs, one of which exploded over Nagasaki in August 1945.

Atomic radius, non-bonded
Half of the distance between two unbonded atoms of the same element when the electrostatic forces are balanced. These values were determined using several different methods.

Covalent radius
Half of the distance between two atoms within a single covalent bond. Values are given for typical oxidation number and coordination.

Electron affinity
The energy released when an electron is added to the neutral atom and a negative ion is formed.

Electronegativity (Pauling scale)
The tendency of an atom to attract electrons towards itself, expressed on a relative scale.

First ionisation energy
The minimum energy required to remove an electron from a neutral atom in its ground state.

Atomic data

Atomic radius, non-bonded (Å) 2.43 Covalent radius (Å) 1.80
Electron affinity (kJ mol−1) Unknown Electronegativity
(Pauling scale)
Ionisation energies
(kJ mol−1)


Common oxidation states

The oxidation state of an atom is a measure of the degree of oxidation of an atom. It is defined as being the charge that an atom would have if all bonds were ionic. Uncombined elements have an oxidation state of 0. The sum of the oxidation states within a compound or ion must equal the overall charge.


Atoms of the same element with different numbers of neutrons.

Key for isotopes

Half life
  y years
  d days
  h hours
  m minutes
  s seconds
Mode of decay
  α alpha particle emission
  β negative beta (electron) emission
  β+ positron emission
  EC orbital electron capture
  sf spontaneous fission
  ββ double beta emission
  ECEC double orbital electron capture

Oxidation states and isotopes

Common oxidation states 6, 5, 4, 3
Isotopes Isotope Atomic mass Natural abundance (%) Half life Mode of decay
  238Pu 238.050 - 8.87 y  α 
        4.75 x 1010 sf 
  239Pu 239.052 - 2.410 x 104 α 
        8 x 105 sf 
  240Pu 240.054 - 6.56 x 103 α 
        1.14 x 1011 sf 
  241Pu 241.057 - 14.33 y  β- 
        > 6 x 1016 sf 
  242Pu 242.059 - 3.75 x 105 α 
        6.77 x 1010 sf 
  244Pu 244.064 - 8.12 x 107 α 
        6.6 x 1010 sf 


Data for this section been provided by the British Geological Survey.

Relative supply risk

An integrated supply risk index from 1 (very low risk) to 10 (very high risk). This is calculated by combining the scores for crustal abundance, reserve distribution, production concentration, substitutability, recycling rate and political stability scores.

Crustal abundance (ppm)

The number of atoms of the element per 1 million atoms of the Earth’s crust.

Recycling rate

The percentage of a commodity which is recycled. A higher recycling rate may reduce risk to supply.


The availability of suitable substitutes for a given commodity.
High = substitution not possible or very difficult.
Medium = substitution is possible but there may be an economic and/or performance impact
Low = substitution is possible with little or no economic and/or performance impact

Production concentration

The percentage of an element produced in the top producing country. The higher the value, the larger risk there is to supply.

Reserve distribution

The percentage of the world reserves located in the country with the largest reserves. The higher the value, the larger risk there is to supply.

Political stability of top producer

A percentile rank for the political stability of the top producing country, derived from World Bank governance indicators.

Political stability of top reserve holder

A percentile rank for the political stability of the country with the largest reserves, derived from World Bank governance indicators.



Specific heat capacity (J kg−1 K−1)

Specific heat capacity is the amount of energy needed to change the temperature of a kilogram of a substance by 1 K.

Young's modulus

A measure of the stiffness of a substance. It provides a measure of how difficult it is to extend a material, with a value given by the ratio of tensile strength to tensile strain.

Shear modulus

A measure of how difficult it is to deform a material. It is given by the ratio of the shear stress to the shear strain.

Bulk modulus

A measure of how difficult it is to compress a substance. It is given by the ratio of the pressure on a body to the fractional decrease in volume.

Vapour pressure

A measure of the propensity of a substance to evaporate. It is defined as the equilibrium pressure exerted by the gas produced above a substance in a closed system.

Pressure and temperature data – advanced

Specific heat capacity
(J kg−1 K−1)
Unknown Young's modulus (GPa) Unknown
Shear modulus (GPa) Unknown Bulk modulus (GPa) Unknown
Vapour pressure  
Temperature (K)
400 600 800 1000 1200 1400 1600 1800 2000 2200 2400
Pressure (Pa)
- - - 1.03
x 10-8
x 10-6
0.000594 0.0182 0.262 2.2 12.6 53.8
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Listen to Plutonium Podcast
Transcript :

Chemistry in its element: plutonium


You're listening to Chemistry in its element brought to you by Chemistry World, the magazine of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

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Chris Smith

Hello, this week on Chemistry in its element a substance that most people think is man made but in fact often turns up in the centres of stars. It also packs a huge nuclear punch when it's in the right sort of warhead and also has the power to be a super conductor. The only problem is its radio active and that means that when it decays it tends to fall apart. It is of course Plutonium and here to spell it out is Cambridge University's Ian Farnan.

Ian Farnan

Plutonium's often billed as the 'most toxic substance known to man'. Just the word plutonium instils a dread in people's minds - And it's the early history of plutonium that established its dark side - and it's a reputation that's been hard to shake-off since.

Glenn Seaborg discovered plutonium at Berkeley in 1940, and in the following spring, when it was found that it could sustain a nuclear chain reaction, he secretly wrote to President Roosevelt, to inform him of that this substance had the potential to be a powerful source of nuclear energy. And from that moment the race was on to produce significant amounts to supply a secret project codenamed the Manhattan Engineering District, the goal of which was to produce a nuclear bomb.

Anyone familiar with the iconic image of the mushroom cloud understands the tremendous explosive power of a correctly controlled detonation of plutonium. The energy density is mind-boggling: a sphere of metal 10 cm in diameter and weighing just 8 Kg is enough to produce an explosion at least as big as the one that devastated Nagasaki in 1945.

But apart from military uses like this, plutonium also has one of the richest chemistries of any element. There are six different forms of plutonium, known as allotropes, that all exist at different temperatures and behave differently.

At room temperature, for instance, the plutonium is very brittle, but heated to around 100 Celsius is transforms to a much more malleable metal. Scientists have found that they can mimic this effect by adding a small amount of gallium, which gives the room temperature metal similar properties to its higher-temperature counterpart, and this makes it much easier to work with.

Mixing plutonium with other metals can also produce substances with other interesting properties. For instance, adding some cobalt and gallium can produce a material that behaves as a super-conductor at low temperatures. Its electrons link up into a close-knit arrangement called Cooper pairs, which allow electricity to flow freely with no resistance.

But unfortunately this arrangement doesn't last very long. Because plutonium-239 self destructs, undergoing radioactive decay by spitting out a highly energetic alpha-particle to produce Uranium-235.

But as the alpha-particle leaves it causes the uranium nucleus to recoil like a gun that's just been fired, and this damages the structure of the material, disrupting the paired electrons and slowly destroying the superconductivity.

So in this sense plutonium is its own worst enemy. Its radioactivity means that it's very difficult to exploit the richness of its chemistry in many compounds, and as its reputation precedes it, plutonium would also have trouble gaining acceptance as a technological material.

But despite its tarnished reputation, some people quite literally have a place in their hearts for plutonium because one of its isotopes, plutonium­-238, generates so much heat when it decays, that it was used as a long-lasting thermoelectric generator in early heart pacemakers.

Nowadays it's been replaced by better batteries, but it's still popular with space scientists who use it to power probes sent to explore distant planets far from the Sun, like Cassini, that was sent to Saturn, and New Horizons, which is on its way to Pluto.

Plutonium's in a part of the periodic table called the actinide series alongside its neighbours thorium and protoactinium. Seaborg christened the actinides, rearranging the periodic table in the process, on the basis of the unusual arrangements of their electrons, which give these substances unusual magnetic properties, as well as the ability to have multiple oxidation states. Plutonium, for instance, has five, giving it the ability to form an unusually wide range of compounds that scientists are only just beginning to get to grips with.

Some say that plutonium's an evil element created by man, but it's actually a natural element produced by a process known as nucleosynthesis, which takes place in supernova explosions, when dying stars blow themselves to pieces.

There isn't much of it on the earth naturally, because the majority of its isotopes have such short half-lives. And in the 4.6 billion years since our solar system began to form, most of them have decayed away to infinitesimally tiny amounts. What there is mostly comes from reactors and nuclear tests.

There are severe hazards associated with plutonium, but as with most dangerous materials, these can be mitigated by careful handling and rigorous safeguards.

But whatever you think about plutonium, its history, however chequered, has revealed some fascinating chemistry. Although the mushroom cloud remains its best-known image.

Chris Smith

Ian Farnan, unpacking Plutonium. Next time on Chemistry in its Element the toxic chemical that saves thousands of lives every year.

Peter Wothers

In his list of the then known elements, Lavoisier included the term azote meaning the absence of life, but the compound used to explosively fill car air bags with gas is sodium azide, a compound of just Sodium and Nitrogen. When triggered this compound explosively decomposes freeing the Nitrogen gas, which inflates the bags. Far from destroying life, this azotic compound has been responsible for saving thousands.

Chris Smith

Peter Wothers talking nitrogen on what promises to be an explosive edition of Chemistry in its element next week. I'm Chris Smith, thank you for listening, see you next time.


Chemistry in its element is brought to you by the Royal Society of Chemistry and produced by There's more information and other episodes of Chemistry in its element on our website at

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Visual Elements images and videos
© Murray Robertson 2011.



W. M. Haynes, ed., CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, CRC Press/Taylor and Francis, Boca Raton, FL, 95th Edition, Internet Version 2015, accessed December 2014.
Tables of Physical & Chemical Constants, Kaye & Laby Online, 16th edition, 1995. Version 1.0 (2005), accessed December 2014.
J. S. Coursey, D. J. Schwab, J.J. Tsai, and R. A. Dragoset, Atomic Weights and Isotopic Compositions(version 3.0), 2010, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD, accessed December 2014.
T. L. Cottrell, The Strengths of Chemical Bonds, Butterworth, London, 1954.


Uses and properties

John Emsley, Nature’s Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements, Oxford University Press, New York, 2nd Edition, 2011.
Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - Office of Science Education, It’s Elemental - The Periodic Table of Elements, accessed December 2014.
Periodic Table of Videos, accessed December 2014.


Supply risk data

Derived in part from material provided by the British Geological Survey © NERC.


History text

© John Emsley 2012.



Produced by The Naked Scientists.


Periodic Table of Videos

Created by video journalist Brady Haran working with chemists at The University of Nottingham.
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