Plutonium puzzled researchers for decades due to its lack of magnetism although it is falls under the metal category on the periodic table. A recent study may have solved the mystery – the missing magnetism is caused by the odd properties of the electrons orbiting the atoms of the metal.
Researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory currently hope that their finding would help other researchers predict and alter the properties of newly found materials.
The team explained that atoms are surrounded by electrons which orbit them along some pre-defined trajectories called orbitals. Usually, orbitals have a fixed number of electrons. Or at least this is the case with common metals such as iron and copper. Each of iron’s orbitals, for instance, can hold no more than two electrons.
In normal conditions, those atoms “rest” in a ground state. Ground state means that no external energy was added to the atom such as electricity or heat radiation.
The research team used a beam of neutrons on plutonium electrons to see how they react to it in ground state. Both neutrons and electrons display magnetism. That magnetism helped the team to detect a special type of signature of plutonium electrons in ground state.
Unlike other metals, plutonium can hold four to six electrons on its atoms’ orbitals in ground state. Until this research, the majority of scientists estimated that plutonium, too, had a fixed number of electrons around its atoms.
Marc Janoschek, lead-author of the study, noted that the electrons can fluctuate between three types of configurations.
“It is in all three at the same time,”
But this odd property of plutonium was predicted eight years ago by a research team at Rutgers University which designed a new mathematical model. The latest experiment is the first to test whether the prediction was correct.
The fluctuation is the key to plutonium’s lack of magnetism, researchers suggested. Metals stick to magnets due to their unpaired electrons. Each electron has its own magnetism and two magnetic poles. When electrons fill an atom’s orbital they usually pair with each other, north to south poles, canceling out the magnetism. But if the electrons don’t have a partner, within a magnetic field they align in the same direction and create a strong magnetic field that attracts other magnets.
But in plutonium, because electrons can change configuration, they are unable to line up into the same direction within a magnetic field so the metal can’t become magnetic.
Image Source: Total Protest.dk
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