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What is Tritium?

Tritium is a rare and radioactive isotope of hydrogen, distinguished by its two neutrons. It's a key component in nuclear fusion and has applications in self-powered lighting and scientific research. Its low-energy emissions make it relatively safe to handle under proper conditions. Intrigued by its potential? Discover how tritium could shape the future of energy and technology.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Tritium is an isotope of the chemical element hydrogen. While a normal hydrogen atom has one proton, a tritium atom has two neutrons and one proton. This isotope is radioactive, and will slowly decay over a period of several decades; due to its short half-life, it is not found in nature. Tritium is primarily used for nuclear fusion and self-powered light sources.

When tritium decays, a neutron inside the nucleus will decay into a proton and an electron, which gets ejected at a high velocity. The decay is the primary source of Helium-3, which is not found in significant quantities in the Earth's crust. Although it can cause surface burns, and may be dangerous if inhaled or ingested, the radiation given off is too weak to penetrate the skin. Tritium has a half-life of 12.3 years.

Tritium is bred inside the reaction that creates a hydrogen bomb blast.
Tritium is bred inside the reaction that creates a hydrogen bomb blast.

The deuterium-tritium fusion reaction is the easiest to obtain, and is currently the focus of research efforts into nuclear fusion. When a deuterium and tritium atom collide, they can fuse to produce a helium nucleus and a neutron, which fly off at high speed. The neutron can then be passed through a lithium blanket to breed more fuel; when a lithium atom is struck by a neutron, it may split, producing a helium atom and another tritium atom. This is also the operating principle behind hydrogen bombs, which use a fission bomb to produce neutrons, breeding tritium from the lithium inside the bomb.

Hydrogen has many isotopes, including tritium, which is used for nuclear fusion.
Hydrogen has many isotopes, including tritium, which is used for nuclear fusion.

Due to its long half-life, abundance, and lack of penetrating power, tritium has replaced radium as the energy source for self-powered lights. An exit sign, watch, or rifle sight made with this isotope may continue to glow for decades with no source of external power. The green or red glow is not produced by the tritium itself; the electrons from recently decayed atoms hit a phosphor, which then glows from the added energy.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Learn more...
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon33286

Tritium is an isotope which holds one proton and two neutrons.

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    • Tritium is bred inside the reaction that creates a hydrogen bomb blast.
      By: The Official CTBTO Photostream
      Tritium is bred inside the reaction that creates a hydrogen bomb blast.
    • Hydrogen has many isotopes, including tritium, which is used for nuclear fusion.
      By: viperagp
      Hydrogen has many isotopes, including tritium, which is used for nuclear fusion.
    • Tritium has replaced radium as the energy source for self-powered lights.
      By: EG
      Tritium has replaced radium as the energy source for self-powered lights.