When you hear the word uranium, you probably think of nuclear power or terrorists trying to make bombs. But uranium is actually a traded commodity that has many other uses. It was first discovered back in 1789 and, despite its radioactivity, is quite safe when used in small amounts.
The radioactivity of uranium comes from its naturally occurring isotopes. It has a silver-white-gray appearance and is very dense. The International Atomic Energy Agency calculates that a 10-centimeter cube of uranium is 20 kilograms heavy. It is a lot denser than lead or cadmium. The uranium found in nature is a mixture of two isotopes, uranium-235 and uranium-238.
Most of the uranium in the world is mined from the mineral uraninite, which is found in pitchblende. The uranium is extracted by a chemical process and converted to uranium dioxide, which is a black powder. It is also a key component in the nuclear fuel cycle.
Usually, the uranium is enriched at a plant to increase the percentage of uranium-235 in the fuel. Cameco has a production facility in Ontario that enriches uranium using a gaseous ion exchange process. The enriched uranium is then transported to a nuclear fuel fabrication plant.
The uranium oxide is mixed with plutonium dioxide and other material to create MOX fuel which is then used in nuclear reactors. It is also a common component in counterweights for aircraft control surfaces and as ballast for missile re-entry vehicles. It is also the preferred metal for use in gyroscopic compasses due to its high density.