What on Earth is Deuterium?

So what is Deuterium?

Deuterium, also known as heavy hydrogen, is an isotope of hydrogen. Its atomic mass is estimated around 2 and its nucleus has double the mass of a normal hydrogen nucleus. Its nucleus consists of one proton and one neutron.

Deuterium is a stable atomic isotope found in natural hydrogen compounds. Deuterium is abundant in the Earth’s oceans. The chance of deuterium occurring in natural hydrogen compounds is 0.014%, or about one in 6400 hydrogen atoms.

Most of the deuterium in the universe is believed to have come from the big bang almost 14 billion years ago, and the majority of deuterium is thought to have been destroyed in stars.

The mean ratio of deuterium and protium (The more common isotope of hydrogen, it consists of no neutrons in the nucleus and has only one proton.) is thought to be different in planetary bodies, such as Jupiter, compared to comets containing ices. This is thought to be because of natural isotope separation processes, from solar heating on the comets that enriches the deuterium with respect to protium on the comets.

History of Deuterium

The deuterium isotope was discovered by Harold Urey in 1931. Because of this discovery, he was given the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1934. Harold Urey and his associates found deuterium by seeing if there was a difference between vapor pressures of molecular hydrogen and of a corresponding molecule with just one hydrogen atom and the possibility of separating these two through distillation of liquefied hydrogen. The way Harold Urey found deuterium was because of its atomic line spectrum; they got this deuterium from the excess residue of the distillation of the liquid hydrogen.

The discovery of deuterium later led to the discovery of the neutron, which helped make the structure of deuterium a lot clearer for people to visualize.

Deuterium can be produced in pure form from the electrolytic method of concentration; this method was originally created to distinguish DNA from RNA. When a water solution such as sodium hydroxide is electrolyzed hydrogen gas is produced. Left in the water is the concentration of deuterium oxide. This method was used up until World War II, when most funding was stopped.


Deuterium has the same characteristics as a normal hydrogen atom in a chemical reaction to form compounds; however, the reaction of deuterium is much slower than normal hydrogen. This characteristic helps distinguish this isotope from a normal hydrogen atom and a protium isotope. Deuterium is used as an isotopic tracer because of its slower reaction. It has been investigated in chemical and biochemical experiments involving hydrogen.

When deuterium atoms are fused in nuclear fusion they produce high amounts of energy. They have been used in nuclear plants along with another hydrogen isotope called tritium. They act as a fuel for the nuclear power plants. It could be a very important nuclear fuel source in the future, as other ways of creating energy such as burning of fossil fuels is not renewable.