What is Tritium?
Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen.
First let’s define a few terms that to help you better understand our favorite isotope.
The Building Blocks
Atoms are the smallest unit you can divide matter into, and consist of a nucleus hanging out in an electron cloud. Hydrogen has a single proton, and since those are what we count when assigning chemical numbers, it’s getting a big ‘ole 1 and sits squarely at the top of the periodic table. Hydrogen is considered a chemical element, meaning, it’s one of the foundations of all things. Kind of a big deal!
Next, when understanding an isotope is, we can think of it almost as a sibling. Related, but different. An isotope is going to share the same atomic number (kind of like having the same last name), but differ in the atomic mass and physical properties. Nuclei with the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons are isotopes of each other—kind of like a slim sibling and a stocky sibling.
Since it’s all about the protons here, you can have different amounts of neutrons that don’t effect chemical properties—just mass. Hydrogen has one proton and one electron, Tritium has one proton, one electron, but two neutrons.
Now we all understand where the “3” in H-3 comes from! For you entomology nerds, the “Tri” comes from “tritos” in Greek. Tritium being an isotope of hydrogen means it’s chemically similar, but neutronically different. It’s also the only radioactive isotope of hydrogen.
Where Does Tritium Come From?
This natural trace isotope of hydrogen can exist in a gaseous state or in water. In its gaseous, and rarest form, Tritium is created by cosmic rays interacting with gases in the upper atmosphere. Most commonly, it’s a by-product of nuclear fission.
Is it Safe?
Like all radioactive isotopes, tritium decays, and as it decays, it gives off, or emits, beta radiation. Beta radiation is a “soft” radiation that doesn’t travel (or radiate) very far—the energy of the emitted electrons is very low. Kind of like my dog on a hot day—there isn’t enough energy for the rays to go very far before they just stop. In water, the soft beta emission of Tritium is stopped after a few micrometers, and can not permeate your outer skin. This beta radiation has a half-life of approximately 12 years.
So, the verdict? YES! It’s absolutely safe. Should you eat it? NO. That’s weird. Don’t do that. Please.
How Does it Glow?
The Tritium isn’t actually glowing. The glow you are seeing is the combination of the Tritium gas and a phosphor lined vial. It’s also phosphor that determines the color—green being the brightest. The technical name for this is radioluminescence.
As a result of this glow being a chemical interaction, there is no need for a battery or electronics of any kind. Here’s where that half-life comes into play—at the end of the roughly 12 years, you will start to see the glow dim as the amount of radiation needed to glow decreases by half.
Our friends at Trigalight have created a great video showing how this happens:
Why isn't Tritium in More Products?
Well, it’s not as simple as buying or making it and then throwing it into whatever you'd like. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulates the use and distribution of self-illuminated tritium devices. Only companies with approved distribution licenses are legally allowed to build and distribute these tritium products.
Glow Rhino follows closely the regulations set forth by the NRC, so you can be sure our products come with all the professional engineering and installation you would expect from a premium every day carry tool company.