Nuclear chemistry is often one of the most fascinating topics we cover in an introductory chemistry course. Finding demos that are interesting, relevant, and manageable is sometimes challenging. As a ceramic artist and chemistry professor, using Fiestaware® to talk about the historical use of radioactive isotopes is my favorite demonstration.
- Geiger counter
- radioactive red-orange Fiestaware
- modern red-orange Fiestaware for comparison
This demonstration shows students the differences in the glaze colors and gives them an appreciation for the changes in product safety over the years. Sometimes the most wonderful colors are not food-safe and contain heavy metals that can leach out over time, or in this case, contain radioactive isotopes. I had the good fortune of having a colleague whose mother collected Fiestaware® from various time periods. He took a Geiger counter to her house and identified red-orange Fiestaware® that had uranium oxide in the glaze. When measured next to a modern piece of similar Fiestaware®, the demonstration is dramatic. Students often remark that this is their favorite demo of the year. I made the video below of this demo that can be shown to students if you do not have these types of items available.
For additional information about the use of uranium oxide in Fiestaware®, Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) has a page dedicated to the topic. This page includes a discussion of the sources of uranium oxide used in red Fiestaware® over a range of years. It also includes estimates of radiation exposure for the highest percentages of uranium oxide used in these glazes. This would be an excellent resource for student discussions and background supporting this demonstration.
For a general discussion of radioactivity in everyday life, including in ceramics, and specifically red orange Fiestaware®, this article could also be helpful:
S.G. Hutchinson and F. I. Hutchinson, “Radioactivity in Everyday Life,” J. Chem. Ed. 1997, 74, 501-505.
Intructor can either show the video or assemble the materials for an in-class demonstration
Dr. Melanie Harvey, Professor of Chemistry, Johnson County Community College