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Urey, Harold Clayton

isotope compounds separation deuterium

[ yoo ree] (1893–1981) US physical chemist: pioneered isotope separation methods and their application.

Although originally a graduate from Montana in zoology, Urey soon turned to chemistry, first in industry and then at university, and following a year with he afterwards spent his career in chemical physics at four US universities. In 1932 he isolated deuterium, the heavy isotope of hydrogen, and went on to devise a large-scale process for obtaining heavy water (D2O) by electrolysis, which slightly concentrates it, and to examine a range of deuterium compounds. His expertise on isotope separation gave him a critical role in the Second World War in the atomic bomb project (which required the separation of uranium isotopes) and afterwards in the work on securing tritium for the H-bomb. The same expertise led him to an ingenious way of measuring the past temperature of the oceans, and to ideas on the origin of the Earth and life upon it. He believed that the Earth was formed by the cold accretion of mainly metallic particles and that it had a primitive reducing atmosphere; and that the Moon was formed separately. Later work has given broad support for his views, developed by 1952; and the next year in Urey’s laboratory carried out successful experiments on the synthesis of organic compounds from an atmosphere on the Urey model. Urey won a Nobel Prize in 1934. His introduction of isotopically labelled compounds has been of immense value in chemistry, physics, biology and medicine.

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