Glenn Seaborg took part in the discovery of ten of the periodic table’s chemical elements. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1951.
His work on the electronic structure of elements led to the periodic table being rewritten. He also co-discovered technetium-99m, the most commonly used medical radioisotope in the world.
Element 106 is named seaborgium in his honor.
Early Life and Education
Glenn Theodore Seaborg was born on April 19, 1912, in the small mining town of Ishpeming, Michigan, USA.
His father Herman Seaborg and mother Selma Olivia Erickson spoke Swedish at home.
At elementary school Glenn Seaborg took no interest in science.
In 1922 the Seaborg family moved to Los Angeles, California. At David Starr Jordan High School, located in the Watts neighborhood, Glenn Seaborg’s interests in chemistry and physics were awakened by the exhilarating lessons taught by Dwight Logan Reid.
Seaborg graduated from high school at the top of his class, then studied for a chemistry degree at UCLA, where he graduated in 1933, aged 21.
Four years later he was awarded a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. His Ph.D. thesis was in the field of nuclear chemistry.
He became fascinated by Otto Hahn’s work in Germany on radioactive elements. Hahn had discovered the radioactive isotopes radium-228 and thorium-230 and, with Lise Meitner, the most stable form of the new radioactive element protactinium.
Glenn Seaborg’s Scientific Achievements and Discoveries
After obtaining his Ph.D. from Berkeley, Seaborg continued working there as a nuclear chemist, taking part in the discovery of dozens of new isotopes.
The isotopes were produced using Berkeley’s cyclotrons – i.e. particle accelerators.
At the age of 27, in 1939, Seaborg was promoted, becoming a chemistry instructor.
Working with John J. Livingood, Seaborg discovered iodine-131 and cobalt-60: these are crucial radioisotopes in medical diagnoses and treatments.
In 1938, Seaborg and Emilio Segrè discovered technetium-99m, which is the most-used medical radioisotope ever. It is used it tens of millions of scans every year.
The Discovery of Plutonium
In 1940, Edwin McMillan and Philip Abelson discovered element 93 using the 60-inch cyclotron at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, Berkeley. They named the new element neptunium, after the planet Neptune.
Their discovery depended on work Seaborg and his colleagues had carried out to refine a method to isolate the new radioactive metal.
Soon after his discovery, McMillan diverted his attention to radar research.
Seaborg continued working with the cyclotron in an effort to produce the next undiscovered element, element 94.
In February 1941 Seaborg led his research team to discover element 94 – plutonium. They named the new element after Pluto, keeping up the theme which began with element 92, uranium (Uranus) and element 93, neptunium (Neptune).
Plutonium was made by bombarding uranium with hydrogen-2 (heavy hydrogen) nuclei.
A month after discovering plutonium, Seaborg’s team discovered that its isotope plutonium-239 could undergo nuclear fission, and therefore could potentially be used in nuclear weapons and nuclear energy production.
Following his group’s discovery of plutonium, Berkeley promoted Seaborg to the position of assistant professor of chemistry.
Discovering More Elements
After discovering plutonium, Seaborg’s team continued working with the 60-inch cyclotron, discovering curium (in 1944), americium (in 1944), and berkelium (in 1949). Seaborg became a full professor of chemistry in 1945.
Seaborg co-discovered californium in 1950 and mendelevium in 1955 using the 60-inch cyclotron.
Further, he co-discovered the new elements einsteinium and fermium in the fall out from nuclear weapons testing in 1952.
Seaborg also worked in the research groups that independently discovered nobelium and seaborgium, although the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry credits scientists at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia with the first production of these elements.
Except for the discovery of plutonium, Albert Ghiorso was one of Seaborg’s co-workers in all of his element discoveries.
The Atom BombAs an expert in nuclear chemistry, during World War 2 it was inevitable that Seaborg would be asked to take part in the Manhattan Project to produce nuclear weapons.
Seaborg moved to Chicago where he led a team of 100 scientists who worked out how to refine plutonium from uranium and produce it in viable quantities for a plutonium based atomic bomb.
Seaborg was one of the scientists who put their name to the Franck Report, a secret document requesting that the bomb should not be used as a weapon. The scientists requested that an atomic explosion should be publicly demonstrated to representatives of other countries, including Japan, in an attempt to bring about a Japanese surrender. The request was turned down.
The Fat Man bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 was a plutonium bomb. (The Little Boy bomb dropped three days earlier on Hiroshima was a uranium bomb.)
A New Periodic Table
On the basis of electron structures, in 1944 Seaborg proposed that a new row should be added to the periodic table. The new row would be placed below the row of elements known as the lanthanides. The elements in Seaborg’s new row would be called the actinides. He was warned that it would ruin his scientific reputation to publish such a proposal, but he carried on.
Far from professional ruin, Seaborg’s proposal resulted in a significant redesign of the periodic table. The actinide series is now the final row in the standard periodic table, stretching from element 89 (actinium) to element 103 (lawrencium). Within the actinides can be found all of the elements discovered by Seaborg.
PatentsBetween 1954 and 1965 Seaborg was granted a total of 43 patents.
These were mainly for methods of processing and separating radioactive heavy elements.
He also patented methods for producing and separating the element americium.
Royalties from the americium patents provided him with an ongoing income after americium became a standard part of smoke detectors.
An Island of Stability
Seaborg predicted the existence of heavier elements than the ones he had discovered: elements which would be very unstable, with half-lives measured in seconds or fractions of seconds.
However, he also predicted some superheavy elements would form an ‘island of stability’ in the periodic table, with much longer half-lives than surrounding elements.
He based his idea on the fact that atoms whose nuclear energy shells are filled with as many neutrons and protons as possible are particularly stable, and some very heavy elements would have such filled energy shells.
No elements heavy enough to test Seaborg’s island of stability hypothesis have been made yet, but many nuclear scientists would dearly love to achieve this.
Seaborg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1951, when he was just 39 years old. Seaborg shared the prize with Edwin McMillan for their work in discovering elements heavier than uranium.
Recipients of the prize travel to Sweden’s capital, Stockholm, to receive their awards. Brought up by parents who spoke Swedish at home, Seaborg is one of the few Nobel Prize winners who have given their short speech at the Nobel Banquet in Swedish.
In 1997 the element seaborgium was named in Seaborg’s honor; it is the only element ever named after someone who was still living at the time the name was announced.
Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
From 1961 to 1971 Seaborg chaired the Atomic Energy Commission. In this role he helped negotiate the Limited Test Ban Treaty securing the agreement of the US, UK, and USSR in banning above-ground testing of nuclear weapons.
Seaborg’s achievements and activities thrust his name into the Guinness Book of World Records, for taking up the most space in Who’s Who in America: more than any actor, sports star or even politician!
Glenn Seaborg died aged 86 on February 25, 1999, in Lafayette, California.
He was survived by his wife, Helen Griggs Seaborg, and three sons and two daughters.
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