Cobalt (chemical symbol Co) is a metal that may be stable (non radioactive, as found in nature), or unstable (radioactive, man-made). The most common radioactive isotope of cobalt is cobalt-60.

Where do cobalt and cobalt-60 come from?

Non radioactive cobalt occurs naturally in various minerals, and has been used for thousands of years to impart blue color to ceramic and glass. The radionuclide, cobalt-60, is produced for commercial use in linear accelerators. It is also produced as a by-product of nuclear reactor operations, when structural materials, such as steel, are exposed to neutron radiation.

What are the properties of cobalt-60?

Cobalt (including cobalt-60) is a hard, brittle, gray metal with a bluish tint. It is solid under normal conditions and is generally similar to iron and nickel in its properties. In particular, cobalt, like iron, can be magnetized.

Cobalt-60 is used in many common industrial applications, such as in leveling devices and thickness gauges, and in radiotherapy in hospitals. Large sources of cobalt-60 are increasingly used for sterilization of spices and certain foods. The powerful gamma rays kill bacteria and other pathogens, without damaging the product. After the radiation ceases, the product is not left radioactive. This process is sometimes called “cold pasteurization.”

Cobalt-60 is also used for industrial radiography, a process similar to an x-ray, to detect structural flaws in metal parts. One of its uses is in a medical device for the precise treatment of otherwise inoperable deformities of blood vessels and brain tumors. Radionuclides, such as cobalt-60, that are used in industry or medical treatment are encased in shielded metal containers or housings, and are referred to as radiation ‘sources.’ The shielding keeps operators from being exposed to the strong radiation.

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