Isotope separation

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Isotope separation is the process of concentrating specific isotopes of a chemical element by removing other isotopes, for example separating natural uranium into enriched uranium and depleted uranium. This is a crucial process in the manufacture of uranium fuel for nuclear power stations, and is also required for the creation of uranium based nuclear weapons. Plutonium based weapons use plutonium produced in a nuclear reactor, which must be operated in such a way as to produce plutonium already of suitable isotopic mix or grade. This theory was first recognized by Charles H. Townes. While in general chemical elements can be purified through chemical processes, isotopes of the same element have nearly identical chemical properties, which makes this type of separation impractical, except for separation of deuterium.


Separation techniques

There are three types of isotope separation techniques:

  • Those based directly on the atomic weight of the isotope.
  • Those based on the small differences in chemical reaction rates produced by different atomic weights.
  • Those based on properties not directly connected to atomic weight, such as nuclear resonances.

The third type of separation is still experimental; practical separation techniques all depend in some way on the atomic mass. It is therefore generally easier to separate isotopes with a larger relative mass difference. For example deuterium has twice the mass of ordinary (light) hydrogen and it is generally easier to purify it than to separate uranium-235 from the more common uranium-238. On the other extreme, separation of fissile plutonium-239 from the common impurity plutonium-240, while desirable in that it would allow the creation of gun-type nuclear weapons from plutonium, is generally agreed to be impractical.[citation needed]

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