Tritium Definition Meaning Uses and Formula

The tritium is the name that has been given to one of the isotopes of hydrogen chemical element, whose symbol usually be T or 3 H, although it is also called hydrogen-3. This is widely used in a large number of applications, especially in the nuclear field.

what is tritium?

Likewise, in the 1930s this isotope originated for the first time, starting from the bombardment with high-energy particles (called deuterons) of another isotope of the same element called deuterium, thanks to the scientists P. Harteck, ML Oliphant, and E. Rutherford.

These researchers were unsuccessful in isolating tritium despite their tests, which did yield concrete results in the hands of Cornog and Álvarez, discovering in turn the radioactive qualities of this substance.

On this planet, tritium production is extremely rare in nature, originating only in such small proportions that they are considered traces through atmospheric interactions with cosmic radiation.

Structure of tritium

When talking about the structure of tritium, the first thing to notice is its nucleus, which has two neutrons and a single proton, which gives it a mass three times greater than that of ordinary hydrogen.

This isotope has physical and chemical properties that distinguish it from other isotopic species of hydrogen, despite their structural similarities.

In addition to having an atomic weight or mass of around 3 g, this substance exhibits radioactivity, the kinetic characteristics of which show a half-life of approximately 12.3 years.

The upper image compares the structures of the three known isotopes of hydrogen, called protium (the most abundant species), deuterium, and tritium.

The structural characteristics of tritium allow it to coexist with hydrogen and deuterium in water that comes from nature, the production of which is possibly due to the interaction between cosmic radiation and nitrogen of atmospheric origin.

Some facts about tritium

Various ways of producing tritium have been investigated and used due to its high scientific interest in its radioactive and energy-efficient properties.

Thus, the following equation shows the general reaction by which this isotope is produced, from the bombardment of deuterium atoms with high-energy deuterons:

D + D → T + H

Likewise, it can be carried out as an exothermic or endothermic reaction through a process called neutron activation of certain elements (such as lithium or boron), depending on the element that is being treated.

In addition to these methods, tritium can rarely be obtained from nuclear fission, which consists of the division of the nucleus of an atom considered heavy (in this case, isotopes of uranium or plutonium) to obtain two or more nuclei of smaller size, producing enormous amounts of energy.

In this case, obtaining tritium occurs as a by-product of by-product, but it is not the purpose of this mechanism.

With the exception of the process that was previously described, all these production processes of this isotopic species are carried out in nuclear reactors, in which the conditions of each reaction are controlled.


  • Produces an enormous amount of energy when it originates from deuterium.
  • It has radioactive properties, which continues to arouse scientific interest in nuclear fusion research.
  • This isotope is represented in its molecular form as T 2 or 3 H 2, whose molecular weight is around 6 g.
  • Similar to protium and deuterium, this substance has difficulty being confined.
  • When this species combines with oxygen, it produces an oxide (represented as T 2 O) that is in the liquid phase and is commonly known as super-heavy water.
  • It is able to undergo fusion with other light species more easily than that shown by ordinary hydrogen.
  • It presents a danger to the environment if it is used in a massive way, especially in reactions of fusion processes.
  • It can form with oxygen another substance known as semi super heavy water (represented as HTO), which is also radioactive.
  • It is considered a generator of low-energy particles, known as beta radiation.
  • When there have been cases of consumption of tritiated water, it has been observed that its half-life in the body remains in the range of 2.4 to 18 days, being subsequently excreted.

tritium Uses and Applications

Among the applications of tritium, the processes related to nuclear-type reactions stand out. Below is a list of its most important uses:

  • In the area of ​​radioluminescence, tritium is used to produce instruments that allow lighting, especially at night, in different devices for commercial use such as watches, knives, and firearms, among others, through self-feeding.
  • In the field of nuclear chemistry, reactions of this type are used as an energy source in the manufacture of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, as well as being used in combination with deuterium for controlled nuclear fusion processes.
  • In the area of ​​analytical chemistry, this isotope can be used in the radioactive labeling process, where tritium is placed in a specific species or molecule and it can be followed up for studies that it is desired to carry out.
  • In the case of the biological environment, tritium is used as a transient tracer in oceanic processes, which allows the investigation of the evolution of the oceans on Earth in the physical, chemical, and even biological fields.
  • Among other applications, this species has been used to manufacture an atomic battery in order to produce electrical energy.

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