44. Ruthenium: The Glow Cloud

Element 44 is technically not named for Russia… but perhaps it should be.

Featured above: The much-desired Parker 51 pen. If you’re not sure what that has to do with ruthenium, don’t worry. We’ll get to the point. (Photo by Andrea Caligaris, CC BY-NC 2.0) 

Show Notes

A Correction: I hear that I caused quite a stir between two of my most dedicated listeners when I incorrectly referred to the Parker 51 as a “ballpoint pen.” This is just as erroneous as saying “Ruthenia” was the Latin name of the Russian empire!

The Parker 51 was a fountain pen, with a nib at the end, which honestly makes a lot more sense for the time. Ballpoint pens were around, but it would be another ten or twenty years before they would dominate the market for writing utensils.

I’m always happy to issue corrections to any errors in an episode. For those who don’t read the show notes, I’ll also mention this fact the next time we get to pen nibs (although that might take a while). In the meantime, if you, dear listener, hear something that sounds like a mistake, please don’t be shy and send me a note.

A sincere thanks for calling this to my attention, Mom and Dad.

The Glow Cloud (All Hail), as everyone knows, is an eternal deity predating reality and currently serving as the President of the Night Vale School Board.

As far as Cherenkov radiation, it is a very cool phenomenon. Not only is it radiation that actually emits light, like in a cartoon, but it involves electrons traveling faster than the speed of light. Whu??? That’s right. I’ll let SciShow explain:

Episode Script

Element 44 has one of those names that’s supposed to honor a country, Russia, but is actually an instance of scientists outsmarting themselves. Similar to how gallium is (supposedly) named after the Latin label for France, ruthenium takes its moniker from the Latin name for the region we know as Ukraine and the surrounding areas.

It is erroneous to claim that Ruthenia was ever applied to the entire area we know today as “Russia” — a sprawling nation that spans many thousands of miles across two continents and is home to hundreds of distinct ethnic groups.1

Russia’s Ural Mountains do contain some of the richest known deposits of ruthenium in the world, but the Ural Mountains are a good thousand miles east of the element’s eponymous lands. There simply isn’t much ruthenium in Ruthenia.

But while Russia might lose this element on a technicality, perhaps the country should get to claim it anyway. Intentionally or otherwise, no other nation has established such a strong connection with element 44.

You’re listening to The Episodic Table Of Elements, and I’m T. R. Appleton. Each episode, we take a look at the fascinating true stories behind one element on the periodic table.

Today, we’ll piece together some evidence about ruthenium.

The periodic table is a beautifully ordered system of organization — repeating rows of elements in sequence, grouped in columns by similarity. But as we discussed in episode zero of the podcast, it is riddled with exceptions. Hydrogen’s placement is uncertain, the metalloids meander diagonally across the table, and the refractory metals occupy a blob of uncertain borders in the middle of the transition metals.

Ruthenium, too, belongs to a special classification of elements: the platinum group. This might sound a little odd, considering platinum is in an entirely different group in a whole other row. But there’s a lot of similar chemistry among the six elements that constitute this rectangular sub-group: ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, and in the row below, osmium, iridium, and platinum.

We got a hint of this when we first explored the transition metals in episode 21: The halogens and the alkali metals and so on rightly get a lot of attention, but as we dive deeper, there will be greater similarities within rows rather than groups. This is especially true for the lanthanide and actinide series — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The six metals in the platinum group are usually found together in mineral deposits, and they’re hard workers — very resistant to oxidation, wear, and tear, and they’re especially useful for their catalytic properties.

Speaking of which: In popular use, the word “catalytic” is only ever followed by “converter,” and people rarely explain exactly what a catalytic converter does. So let’s dig in.

Catalysis is a process in which one material — the “catalyst” — helps a chemical reaction happen more quickly or efficiently, but the catalyst itself is unchanged by the process. It’s kind of like the minister at a wedding: Whoever presides over a wedding permanently bonds two people together, but the minister is free to officiate other weddings all day every day without ever getting married.

Catalysts are an excellent bit of tech. They make possible all sorts of reactions that would otherwise require too much work or take too long to perform. For instance — about that catalytic converter? It’s part of a car’s exhaust system, and it helps neutralize poisonous emissions like carbon monoxide and formaldehyde, changing them into into CO2 and water vapor.

Ruthenium happens to make a useful catalyst for a variety of reactions that are important for industry — and also, maybe for space exploration.

The Sabatier process is one such reaction. Discovered around the turn of the 20th century by Paul Sabatier, it’s a neat little trick where you pump a chamber full of carbon dioxide and hydrogen, bake at a high temperature and pressure, and out pops a bunch of methane and good old H2O. The latter is obviously useful, both for liquid refreshment and as a supply of oxygen plucked out via electrolysis. The methane, meanwhile, makes pretty decent rocket fuel.2 3 4

The whole shebang is made far more feasible in the presence of a ruthenium-on-alumina catalyst, helping those carbons, hydrogens, and oxygens arrange themselves in the most useful ways.5

Now look at a place like Mars, which has a practically unlimited supply of CO2 and a bothersome lack of stuff like water and breathable air. So just bring one of these ruthenium-clad contraptions to the Red Planet and we’ll be more comfortable than Mark Watney, with free, unlimited stores of everything we need — even rocket fuel to go back home!

At least, that’s what some armchair enthusiasts would have you believe.6 The truth is a little more complicated: This process still requires a great deal of energy, which needs to be generated somehow, an awful lot of hydrogen, which needs to come from somewhere, and rather complex machinery that needs to be built by someone.

That’s not to pooh-pooh the idea. It’s still a valuable process that may very well come in handy as we explore the solar system — but for now, let’s get our feet back on the ground and look back in time to learn a little more about element 44.

It took us a few tries before we really knew we had a unique element on our hands. As mentioned, it usually occurs alongside its cousins, so the platinum group metals were often confused for each other. In 1748, a Spanish explorer named Antonio de Ulloa (oo-yo-ah) took note of a silvery metal that did not have an attractive luster, but was denser than gold. He just didn’t go far enough to realize he had a new element on his hands.7

Polish scientist Jedrzej Sniadecki (Yej-rey Snya-det-ski) rediscovered it in 1807, and people were very interested in astronomy at the time. A positively enormous asteroid had been discovered that same year, and was named “Vesta.” Sniadecki thought it would be a nice tribute to give this new element a similar name: vestium. Alas, he was not very well connected, and nobody really paid any attention to this discovery. Perhaps they would have, eventually, except that Sniadecki was so embarrassed by the whole affair that he retracted his findings.8 9

Twenty years later, the German scientist Gottfried Osann got into a rather notable tiff with legendary chemist Jons Jacob Berzelius. The two had just dissolved some platinum using aqua regia, a volatile mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids. Afterwards, they were left with a small amount of residue. Being scientifically minded, they took a closer look.

Osann confidently declared that he had found not one, not two, but three never-before-seen metals. He dubbed them pluranium, polinium, and ruthenium.

Berzelius, however, was adamant that there were no new elements in the residue.

This turned into a long-standing argument between the two men, only settled by a third party after nearly two more decades. In 1844, Karl Klaus performed the same experiment. He showed beyond a doubt that, while there was no evidence of polinium or pluranium, there was indeed one new material in the residue.

In Osann’s honor, Klaus kept the element’s name ruthenium. Entirely coincidentally, out of all these scientists, he was the only one who happened to be Russian.


If you search recent headlines for ruthenium, you’ll find a lot of hubbub about Russia — but not because of geographic technicalities, nor because of Karl Klaus. It all has to do with a mysterious radioactive cloud that’s caused a lot of consternation.

Now, I need to clarify a little bit. I’m not talking about the radioactive cloud that appeared earlier this month on the country’s Arctic coast. That appears to have been a weapons test gone horribly awry. Nor am I talking about the radioactive cloud that alerted the world to the Chernobyl disaster, despite initial silence and denial from the Russian government. That is a fascinating and horrible story, but we’ll save it for another day. I’m gazing only two years in the past, October 2017, when several monitoring stations around the world noticed something in the air. Specifically, high levels of ruthenium-106, originating from somewhere around the Ural Mountains.

Now, it’s true that the Ural Mountains are absolutely stuffed with ruthenium, but ruthenium-106 isn’t an isotope that occurs naturally. In fact, it has a very specific origin: It’s one of the byproducts of nuclear power generation.

But it’s not something that should be drifting through the atmosphere. It’s a solid waste product. And it’s supposed to be at the bottom of a deep pool of water, bathed in the eerie blue glow of Cherenkov radiation, left alone for years until it becomes a little less dangerous to handle.

Luckily, there wasn’t so much ruthenium-106 in the atmosphere to pose a health risk. But the fact that it was there at all suggested that there might have been a pretty powerful explosion. So a few dozen other countries raised an eyebrow and said, “Hey, Russia, is everything okay?”10

The Russian government insisted, suspiciously firmly, that it had nothing to do with the atmospheric ruthenium, and actually, they didn’t detect any ruthenium at all, so maybe it came from someplace else. Why don’t you go check Romania? After that excuse fell apart, an internal commission suggested, eh, perhaps a ruthenium-powered satellite fell to Earth and burned up in the atmosphere.11 12

It’s not entirely obvious to the layperson, but that’s like mumbling through a mouth full of crumbs that you have no idea what happened to all the cookies. There are a few reasons:

  • With a half-life around one year, ruthenium would make a pretty terrible power source for a satellite.
  • There are pretty good records of which satellites are aloft and which have bitten the dust. No satellites went missing around that time.
  • But the biggest reason is Mayak.13

Situated about fifty miles northwest of Chelyabinsk, Mayak is a facility that reprocesses spent nuclear fuel. That is, once nuclear fuel rods have spent at least 3-5 years cooling down in one of those pools,  a place like Mayak separates them into components that can be re-used and waste that needs to be carefully handled. These plants are few and far between, and Mayak just so happens to be conspicuously located in the same place as this ruthenium cloud’s origin.14

It probably doesn’t help that between 1953 and 2008, Mayak was the site of at least 34 major nuclear accidents.1516 17 18 19 20These ranged from contaminated soil to a series of violent explosions. One such explosion was the worst nuclear disaster on record for nearly thirty years, and today is only eclipsed by those at Fukushima and Chernobyl.

Known as the Kyshtym Disaster, a buried cooling tank slowly overheated to a boiling temperature and exploded with the force of at least 70 tons of TNT. An area roughly the size of Puerto Rico was blanketed with radioactive strontium and cesium. Food supplies were tainted, and thousands of people were permanently torn from their homes.21 22

Officially, the Soviet Union flat-out denied the incident until 1989, and even then they insisted there were zero casualties.23

You can see why the international community might treat present denials with some skepticism.

The 2017 ruthenium cloud is back in the news because a major scientific journal has recently published a paper, written by sixty-nine authors from fifty different institutions, that thoroughly debunked the satellite excuse and presented overwhelming evidence that something happened at Mayak. (Again.)24 25

In several prior episodes, we’ve mentioned how consistent radioactive decay makes it easy to pin certain events to certain times — like how the ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 places Otzi the Iceman‘s time of death around 3200 BCE.

In this case, scientists were able to deduce that this ruthenium had come from spent fuel rods that were a year and a half old.

If you think that sounds pretty fresh, you’re right. As mentioned: This stuff is supposed to sit in a cooling tank for at least three years, preferably more. Why on earth would scientists mess around with nuclear waste that was still piping hot and highly dangerous?

It’s difficult to know with certainty, but there’s a lot of consensus around one plausible theory.26

For over a decade, the Borexino observatory in Italy has been studying neutrinos emitted by the sun. We talked about neutrinos in our episode on gallium, but the short version is: They’re extremely strange particles that we don’t quite understand, and they’re very difficult to detect.

Around 2013, the lab started working on a new experiment. Their neutrino detector had proven itself to be very capable at its job. But solar neutrinos are scarce and unpredictable. It would be great if they had some kind of artificial source that could provide a more reliable supply of neutrinos to study.2728 29

It is possible to create such a device, at least in theory. But it requires some very careful considerations, and not many facilities are equipped for the task. The job would require using some highly exotic materials to create some extremely radioactive isotopes of chromium and cerium. The process would also involve other high-risk chemicals, like ruthenium tetroxide… a compound that happens to be very explosive.30

There are two more facts that are matters of public record:

  • In 2016, Mayak agreed to produce this neutrino generator for an undisclosed amount of money.31
  • In November 2017, two months after the detection of the ruthenium cloud, Mayak informed the Borexino observatory that they would not be able to provide the desired samples. The neutrino experiment was quietly canceled.32

I should reiterate that Russia’s official stance is that no accident happened on their soil, and they have no idea what caused that strange plume.

We might have a pretty full understanding of what happened in 2017, or there might be far more to the story that can’t be deduced with forensic science.

As far as my official stance? Well, I’d simply like to echo what’s been said by our friend Thoisoi, the chemistry educator from YouTube:

I am not making any claims, and not taking politics here. I’m just sharing information from the open sources. It is up to you to make any conclusions.”33

Geoffrey Wilkinson was a prominent twentieth-century chemist who had a particular fondness for the platinum group metals. Ruthenium, he believed, was especially precious: it could produce some powerful chemical reactions, but was highly resistant to attack by acids. For this reason, he called element 44 “an element for the connoisseur.”34

So while it would be easy to source a sample from old electronics, or a piece of costume jewelry — both common applications for the substance35 — it might be a nice tribute to outfit our collections with something a bit more posh. And wouldn’t you know? There just so happens to be a perfect specimen.

An ambitious collector could specialize in some very esoteric niches with their samples. For instance, we’ve seen several coins that make good additions to our hoards. Nearly every natural element can be found in the lattice of beautiful stones. And golf clubs can be a good source of elements that sound very impressive, regardless of their effect on one’s game. Today, we’ll see the first entry in another trend: A handful of elements have been most popularly used for the tips of pens, especially metals that are very hard and durable.

It makes sense: If they managed not to lose it, a writer could press a pen against paper for a distance of several miles before running out of ink. That was especially important in a prior age, when handwriting was a more essential skill than typing.

In the mid-twentieth century, perhaps the most fashionable pens in the world were made by Parker. One model in particular stood head and shoulders above the rest: The Parker 51. “The world’s most wanted pen,” as the company called it, was wielded by bankers, generals, and world leaders. If anything about the 51 was revolutionary, it was actually the ink: Rather than sit atop a piece of paper and dry slowly, paper would actually absorb this ink, allowing it to dry instantly.

But it sure didn’t hurt to encase such a helpful innovation in a body of gold and chrome.

For the ball point of that pen, Parker’s designers needed a material that could stand up to years of use, but wouldn’t cost too much money. Ruthenium happened to fit the bill perfectly. Parker wanted to advertise their cleverness to the buying public, but they also couldn’t have competitors increasing demand for their material. Their solution? The called the wonder-material by a new, completely invented name: “Plathenium.”

Lucky for us, 75 years later, the secret is out. So if you rummage around for a while in an antiques store or a musty old desk, we can show the world that we truly are “elemental connoisseurs.”

Thanks for listening to The Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel. To learn what Cherenkov radiation is, and why it provides an eerie blue glow, visit episodic table dot com slash R u.

I regret to inform you that the show did not make the list of contenders for a 2019 Podcast Award. That’s all right, there’s always next year. However, a number of listeners have rated the show on iTunes, and some of you have written very kind reviews. That makes me feel great, but it also helps make the show a little more visible so that more people can discover the podcast. A warm thanks to all of you who’ve taken the time to help the show grow.

Next time, we’ll get some more colorful commentary from Geoffrey Wilkinson with rhodium.

Until then, this is T. R. Appleton, reminding you that other people will really respect you if you just own up to your mistakes.

Sources

  1. Elementymology & Elements Multidict, Ruthenium. Peter van der Krogt, 1999 – 2010.
  2. Journal Of Environmental Chemical Engineering, Methane Production By A Combined Sabatier Reaction/Water Electrolysis Process. L. Guerra et al, February 2018.
  3. Environmental Control And Life Support Systems For Human Exploration Missions To Near-Earth Asteroids. Thesis by Emil Nathanson.
  4. NASA, A Crewed Mission To Mars…
  5. The Space Review, Engineering Mars Commercial Rocket Propellant Production For The Big Falcon Rocket. Steve Hoeser, April 23, 2013.
  6. Atomic Rockets, Space Mining. Winchell Chung, 1995-2019. Incidentally, I don’t mean to imply that Chung is an “armchair enthusiast.” He’s been working on his frankly amazing website for over two decades. It is only a website that happens to be beloved by armchair enthusiasts.
  7. The History And Use Of Our Earth’s Chemical Elements: A Reference Guide, p. 134. Robert E. Krebs, 2006.
  8. The Hexagon, The Curious Case Of “Vestium”. James L. Marshall and Virginia R. Marshall, Summer 2011.
  9. PubMed, Vestium Or Ruthenium — What Does A Study Of The Literature Tell Us? R. E. Sioda, 2011.
  10. Science, Mishandling Of Nuclear Fuel In Russia May Have Caused Radioactivity To Spread Across Europe. Edwin Cartlidge, February 14, 2018.
  11. LiveScience, Radioactive Cloud Originated In Russia: What Might Have Caused It? Tia Ghose, November 21, 2017.
  12. Wired, A Strange Radioactive Cloud Likely Came From Russia. Meredith Fore, August 15, 2019.
  13. Physics World, Experts Point To Russia As Source Of Radioactive Ruthenium Leak. Edwin Cartlidge, July 29, 2019
  14. ChemistryWorld, Investigation Blames Russian Facility For Last Year’s Ruthenium Isotope Leak. Maria Burke, February 23, 2018.
  15. Bellona, Revoked License Grinds Mayak To A Halt. Rashid Alimov, January 16, 2003.
  16. Bellona, Radioactive Material Leaks During Transport At Mayak – No One Hurt, Says Plant. October 26, 2007.
  17. United Nations Scientific Committee On The Effects Of Ionizing Radiation, Sources And Effects Of Ionizing Radiation. 2011.
  18. Bellona, Accident At Mayak Leads To Apparently Contained Radiation Leak, And Seriously Injures One Worker. Yelena Yefremova, October 28, 2008.
  19. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, A Brief History Of Criticality Incidents In Russia – 1953 – 1997. G. J. Vargo, April 1999.
  20. The Bellona Report, The Russian Nuclear Industry: The Need For Reform. Igor Kudrik et al, 2004.
  21. Encyclopedia Britannica, Kyshtym Disaster. Robert Lewis, September 28, 2018.
  22. Environment & Society Portal, The Nuclear Disaster Of Kyshtym 1957 And The Politics Of The Cold War. Thomas Rabl.
  23. The New York Times, Soviets Now Admit ’57 Nuclear Blast. Francis X. Clines, June 18, 1989.
  24. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, Airborne Concentrations And Chemical Considerations Of Radioactive Ruthenium From An Undeclared Major Nuclear Release In 2017. O. Masson et al. June 21, 2019. This is the primary source, the paper mentioned in this paragraph. I’ll be citing other articles as well, but they all point back to this. Those stories are complementary. If you’re only going to read one source, make it this one. Unlike some other journals, this one makes the paper freely available!
  25. New Atlas, Despite Denials, Study Claims 2017’s Mysterious Radioactive Cloud Did Come From Russia. Rich Haridy, July 29, 2019.
  26. ScienceNews, How A 2017 Radioactive Plume May Be Tied To Russia And Nixed Neutrino Research. Emily Conover, July 29, 2019.
  27. JHEP, SOX: Short Distance Neutrino Oscillations With Borexino. D. Bravo-Berguño on behalf of the SOX Corporation, 2013.
  28. Journal Of Physics: Conference Series, SOX: Search For Short Baseline Neutrino Oscillations With Borexino. M Vivier et al, 2016.
  29. Journal Of Physics: Conference Series, The 144CE Source For SOX. M Durero et al, 2016.
  30. Oxidation Of Primary Alcohols To Carboxylic Acids, p. 61-78. Gabriel Tojo & Marcos Fernández, 2007.
  31. Physics Today, Widespread Radioactive Plume In 2017 Likely Came From Russia. Andrew Grant, August 20, 2019.
  32. See the previously cited Wired story.
  33. Ruthenium – THE MOST MYSTERIOUS METAL ON EARTH!, 6:12. Thoisoi2, March31, 2018.
  34. Chemical & Engineering News, Ruthenium. Robert H. Grubbs, September 2003.
  35. PeriodicTable.com, Ruthenium. Theodore Gray.

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