Harold Clayton Urey played a significant role in the development of the atom bomb

Harold Clayton Urey – discoverer of deuterium element

Article on Harold Clayton Urey

Biography & contributions

Harold Clayton Urey was an American physical chemist, Nobel laureate born on April 29, 1893 – died on January 05, 1981. Urey was a key scientist in discovering, isolating heavy hydrogen [deuterium], and development of the atom bomb.

Urey devised methods of separating heavy water from ordinary water and for separating uranium 235 from uranium 238. He isolated heavy isotopes of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and sulfur elements.


Isotopes are variants of a particular chemical element such that, while all isotopes of a given element have the same number of protons in each atom, they differ in neutron number. Some isotopes are radioactive, and are therefore described as radioisotopes or radionuclides, while others have never been observed to undergo radioactive decay and are described as stable isotopes or stable nuclides.

Xenon is the only element with eight stable isotopes. The unstable (radioactive) isotopes are either primordial or postprimordial. Primordial isotopes were a product of stellar nucleosynthesis or another type of nucleosynthesis such as cosmic ray spallation, and have persisted down to the present because their rate of decay is so slow.

Postprimordial isotopes were created by cosmic ray bombardment as cosmogenic nuclides. A few isotopes are naturally synthesized as nucleogenic nuclides, by some other natural nuclear reaction, such as when neutrons from natural nuclear fission are absorbed by another atom.


Oxygen isotopes - 16O, 17O, 18O

Nitrogen isotopes – 14N, 15N - N-15 is used for the production of the radioisotope O-15 which is used in PET. N-15 is also used to study the uptake of Nitrogen in plants and the metabolism of proteins in the human body. N-14 is used for the production of the PET radioisotope C-11.

Facts about deuterium

Hydrogen is unique in that it has three isotopes which are named. Deuterium is one of the isotopes of hydrogen. It has one proton and one neutron. Deuterium was discovered and named in 1931 by Harold Urey, and he got Nobel Prize in 1934.

Deuterium also called heavy hydrogen and symbol is D or 2H. The natural abundance of deuterium in the ocean is approximately 156.25 ppm, which is one atom in 6,400 of hydrogen. Its nucleus, consisting of one proton and one neutron, has double the mass of the nucleus of ordinary hydrogen. Deuterium is a stable atomic species found in natural hydrogen compounds to the extent of 0.014 to 0.015 percent.

Deuterium is produced for industrial, scientific and military purposes, by starting with ordinary water - a small fraction of which is naturally-occurring heavy water - and then separating out the heavy water by the Girdler sulfide process, distillation, or other methods.

Deuterium enters into all chemical reactions characteristic of ordinary hydrogen, forming equivalent compounds. Deuterium, however, reacts more slowly than ordinary hydrogen, a criterion that distinguishes the two forms of hydrogen.

Deuterium is used in heavy water moderated fission reactors. Deuterium is useful in hydrogen nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (proton NMR).

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