Xenon, a relatively inert element, is one of the noble gases. Over the years, a number of valuable uses for members of the noble gas class of elements have evolved. Xenon is no exception with a number of commercially viable uses.
The production of xenon involves the fractional distillation of liquid air. In addition to xenon, this process also yields two of the other noble gases, neon and krypton.
Xenon when confined within a vacuum tube and subjected to an electrical charge exhibits a blue glow. This effect finds a use in both antibacterial and stroboscopic lamps. Xenon lamps are of use in the field of laser technology, where they are used to excite ruby lasers. Electron tube technology also incorporates the gas.
Xenon has the highest molecular weight of all the stable noble gases (131.293 atomic mass units). This high molecular weight is of use in the field of nuclear physics. In this field, xenon finds a use in the manufacture of such devices as bubble chambers and probes.
This high molecular weight is important in the latest use discovered for xenon. In 1998, the experimental unmanned space probe Deep-Space-1 was launched. Designed to test a number of new technologies, a revolutionary type of engine powered by xenon ions powered the probe on its journey through space. The xenon Ion drive engine exceeded its specification for the original mission. This allowed the probe to carry out an unplanned and successful extra mission to observe the comet Borrelly in 2001. After this, the probe was retired to drift in space.
If xenon is exposed to nuclear radiation in an air-cooed nuclear reactor then the radioactive isotopes xenon-133 and xenon-135 form. Xenon-133, which decays by beta decay and has a half-life of 5.243 days, has important medical uses. This radionucleotide is used in scans designed to show impaired pulmonary activity and blood flow to organs. As xenon is biologically inert, the radioactive isotope leaves the body by normal respiration and there is no danger of it binding to and damaging the patient tissues.
At one time, all noble gases were considered inert. Now over eighty compounds incorporating xenon have been synthesized. Such compounds are unstable and are powerful oxidizing agents. Analytical chemists utilize the oxidizing capabilities of perxenates in their work. Perxenates are salts formed from xenon anion XeO6(4-).
Los Alamos National Laboratory Chemistry Division
Jefferson Laboratories Science Education website