Nature and sources of thorium

Thorium is a naturally-occurring, slightly radioactive metal discovered in 1828 by the Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius, who named it after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. It is found in small amounts in most rocks and soils, where it is about three times more abundant than uranium. Soil contains an average of around 6 parts per million (ppm) of thorium. Thorium is very insoluble, which is why it is plentiful in sands but not in seawater, in contrast to uranium.

Thorium exists in nature in a single isotopic form – Th-232 – which decays very slowly (its half-life is about three times the age of the Earth). The decay chains of natural thorium and uranium give rise to minute traces of Th-228, Th-230 and Th-234, but the presence of these in mass terms is negligible. It decays eventually to lead-208.

When pure, thorium is a silvery white metal that retains its lustre for several months. However, when it is contaminated with the oxide, thorium slowly tarnishes in air, becoming grey and eventually black. When heated in air, thorium metal ignites and burns brilliantly with a white light. Thorium oxide (ThO2), also called thoria, has one of the highest melting points of all oxides (3300°C) and so it has found applications in light bulb elements, lantern mantles, arc-light lamps, welding electrodes and heat-resistant ceramics. Glass containing thorium oxide has both a high refractive index and wavelength dispersion, and is used in high quality lenses for cameras and scientific instruments.

Thorium oxide (ThO2) is relatively inert and does not oxidise further, unlike UO2. It has higher thermal conductivity and lower thermal expansion than UO2, as well as a much higher melting point. In nuclear fuel, fission gas release is much lower than in UO2.

The most common source of thorium is the rare earth phosphate mineral, monazite, which contains up to about 12% thorium phosphate, but 6-7% on average. Monazite is found in igneous and other rocks but the richest concentrations are in placer deposits, concentrated by wave and current action with other heavy minerals. World monazite resources are estimated to be about 16 million tonnes, 12 Mt of which are in heavy mineral sands deposits on the south and east coasts of India. There are substantial deposits in several other countries (see Table below). Thorium recovery from monazite usually involves leaching with sodium hydroxide at 140°C followed by a complex process to precipitate pure ThO2. Thorite (ThSiO4) is another common thorium mineral. A large vein deposit of thorium and rare earth metals is in Idaho.

The IAEA-NEA publication Uranium 2014: Resources, Production and Demand (often referred to as the Red Book) gives a figure of 6.2 million tonnes of total known and estimated resources. Data for reasonably assured and inferred resources recoverable at a cost of $80/kg Th or less are given in the table below, excluding some less-certain Asian figures. Some of the figures are based on assumptions and surrogate data for mineral sands (monazite x assumed Th content), not direct geological data in the same way as most mineral resources.

Source World Nuclear

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