The Instrumentation Center











Contributor: Cassandra Pittman

About the Display: The Po display features:

A  Firestone spark plug containing Polonium. Polonium was used, specifically polonium-210, to improve electrical conductivity and allow a larger spark gap. In theory, this meant that there would be a more complete combustion of fuel. The original patent for radioactive spark plugs was approved in 1929 and was actually written for radium. The patent for the Firestone spark plugs was approved in 1941. Polonium ended up being the radioactive element of choice since it was safer than radium and more effective than uranium or thorium. The spark plugs were only manufactured for about 3-4 years in the 1940's, though, since the benefits were minimal and short-lived. Polonium-210's short half-life of 138 days and the inevitable build-up of deposits on the electrodes, which prevented the polonium from interacting with the gas, are what lead to the demise  of these radioactive spark plugs. The polonium in the spark plugs is no longer dangerous, due to the short half life. For more information, visit


  • A darkroom anti-static brush These brushes also contain polonium-210. The alpha omitting polonium-210 ionizes the air immediately around it. The ions in the air around the brush interact with any ions on the surface of whatever is being brushed, photo film or vinyl records, for example, causing any charge (static) on the object to be reduced or eliminated. The dust is no longer held by the static charge and is able to be easily swept away. These types of static brushes are still manufactured today! 


  • A commemorative Polish coin celebrating the 100 year anniversary of Marie and Pierre Curie's shared Nobel Prize award for the discovery of Polonium and Radium.

po coin

Did you know?

  • Polonium is named after Madame Curie's native country, Poland! (Source)
  • There are 33 known polonium isotopes! (Source)
  • Polonium is one of 70 components of cigarette smoke that can induce lung cancer! (Source)

About the Contributor: Cassandra works in the Instrumentation Center as the manager of the outreach program, SCOPE, at the University of Toledo. She chose Polonium because Marie Curie is her favorite scientist and she has Polish heritage.

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Symbol: Po

Atomic Number: 84

Atomic Mass: 209 u

Electron Configuration: [Xe] 6s24f145d106p4

Year Discovered: 1898

Discovered By: Pierre and Marie Curie

Last Updated: 12/18/23