Strontium: From Sugar Beet To Dirty Bombs

April 26, 2011

This versatile metal may provide investors with unrealized opportunities.

 

One of the first major commercial uses of strontium (in the form of strontium hydroxide (Sr(OH)2) was to extract sugar from sugar beet. And, indeed, up until the early part of the last century, more than 100,000 tonnes of the metal's hydroxide was used each year for this purpose.

But strontium's purpose has recently expanded. Having more recently been vital to the production of old-fashioned, cathode ray tube (CRT) color TV screens, with the growing dominance of flat panels, its two main uses in the U.S. are now in the manufacture of glass and ferrite ceramic magnets, and pyrotechnics and signals. It is still used extensively, though less so, in China (a major strontium producer) in the production of CRT TVs.

 

Strontium - End Uses 2010

Source: U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)

 

And then there is the famous radioactive isotope of strontium—strontium-90 (90Sr), probably the only context in which most people have heard of the metal. While widely used as such an isotope both in medicine and industry (see Radioisotopes: A Market In Decay?), it is probably better known as the pernicious byproduct both of nuclear tests (fallout) and nuclear fusion (radioactive waste and spent fuel rods).

Strontium also plays a significant role in a number of films—not least, in 1954, as the material responsible for bringing Godzilla back to life!

More recently, however, fears have been expressed about its potential use as a source of radioactivity in a dirty bomb. It appears that, in the erstwhile Soviet Union, the isotope was used extensively in radioisotope thermoelectric generators, many of which now remain unaccounted for. One can only be somewhat relieved at the difficulty of effectively constructing such a weapon using the stuff.

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