Yep. That’s right. An anion made up of uranium and oxygen is called a uranate. UO22-, UO32- and UO42- are all types of uranate. Wait. It gets funnier. If you were to react one of these things in the lab, say, to attach it to a benzene molecule? Technically, that reaction would be called uranation.

I know, I know. It’s puerile humour. But puerile humour is just so easy to do when talking about uranates! In fact, uranates tend to be yellow in colour. Conentrated uranium oxide (an intermediate stage in uranium ore processing) is called yellowcake. Despite its unfortunate sounding name, yellowcake is used to prepare fuel for the nuclear reactors in power stations. It’s produced by all countries that mine uranium.

As for the uranium ore itself, the most common is known as uranite (mostly uranium dioxide, UO2). Interestingly, due to radioactive decay, the immensely rare element technetium can be found in uranite ores. Uranites were also the first place helium was discovered on Earth (seeing as an α particle is just the nucleus of a helium atom). See? I can be puerile and interesting at the same time!

Actually, perhaps the most common uranate is a complex ion called diuranate, U2O72-. The smaller uranate ions tend to lump together into these larger ions. And yes, they’re all yellow too. I wonder, if Martin Heinrich Klaproth realised the unfortunate humour in all of this in 1789 when he discovered the element, he might not have named it after the planet William Herschel had discovered 8 years earlier. A planet which, alas, provides similar humour for astronomers. Us scientists can be a childish bunch sometimes.

Perhaps the coolest use of diuranate though, is as an additive to glassware. Uranium glass (sometimes known as vaseline glass) has a striking lime green hue to it. Ultraviolet will also make uranium glass fluoresce. While the uranium is still emitting α particles, the mere 1-2% of uranium found in most modern uranium glass makes it essentially harmless — barely above everyday background radiation. A sensitive geiger counter will pick it up. A more meagre one probably wouldn’t register the difference. Any stray α particles which do actually escape from the glass aren’t even capable of penetrating human skin. Uranium used to be used in glassware quite widely before the advent of nuclear technology. These days, it’s rather fallen out of favour, though you can still find it in antiques and certain novelty items. And marbles.

Incidentally, those marbles are available for sale on a site called United Nuclear. If not for the fact that there’s almost certainly some restriction on importing uranium, I’d be quite tempted…

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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