Heavy water

Not to be confused with hard water or tritiated water.
Heavy water
IUPAC name
Other names
  • Deuterium oxide[1]
  • Water-d2[2]
  • Dideuterium monoxide
Molar mass 20.0276 g mol−1
Appearance Very pale blue, transparent liquid
Odor Odorless
Density 1.107 g mL−1
Melting point 3.82 °C; 38.88 °F; 276.97 K
Boiling point 101.4 °C (214.5 °F; 374.5 K)
log P −1.38
Viscosity 1.25 mPa s (at 20 °C)
1.87 D
NFPA 704
Flammability code 0: Will not burn. E.g., water Health code 1: Exposure would cause irritation but only minor residual injury. E.g., turpentine Reactivity code 1: Normally stable, but can become unstable at elevated temperatures and pressures. E.g., calcium Special hazards (white): no codeNFPA 704 four-colored diamond
Except where otherwise noted, data are given for materials in their standard state (at 25 °C [77 °F], 100 kPa).
N verify (what is YesYN ?)
Infobox references

Heavy water (deuterium oxide, 2
) is a form of water that contains a larger than normal amount of the hydrogen isotope deuterium (2
or D, also known as heavy hydrogen), rather than the common hydrogen-1 isotope (1
or H, also called protium) that makes up most of the hydrogen in normal water.[3]


Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen whose nucleus comprises both a neutron and a proton; the nucleus of a protium (normal hydrogen) atom consists of just a proton. The additional neutron makes a deuterium atom roughly twice as heavy as a protium atom.

A molecule of heavy water has two deuterium atoms in place of the two protium atoms of ordinary "light" water. The weight of a heavy water molecule, however, is not substantially different from that of a normal water molecule, because about 89% of the molecular weight of water comes from the single oxygen atom rather than the two hydrogen atoms. The colloquial term heavy water refers to a highly enriched water mixture that contains mostly deuterium oxide D
, but also some hydrogen-deuterium oxide (HDO) and a smaller number of ordinary hydrogen oxide H
molecules. For instance, the heavy water used in CANDU reactors is 99.75% enriched by hydrogen atom-fraction—meaning that 99.75% of the hydrogen atoms are of the heavy type. For comparison, ordinary water (the "ordinary water" used for a deuterium standard) contains only about 156 deuterium atoms per million hydrogen atoms, meaning that 0.0156% of the hydrogen atoms are of the heavy type.

Heavy water is not radioactive. In its pure form, it has a density about 11% greater than water, but is otherwise physically and chemically similar. Nevertheless, the various differences in deuterium-containing water (especially affecting the biological properties) are larger than in any other commonly occurring isotope-substituted compound because deuterium is unique among heavy stable isotopes in being twice as heavy as the lightest isotope. This difference increases the strength of water's hydrogen-oxygen bonds, and this in turn is enough to cause differences that are important to some biochemical reactions. The human body naturally contains deuterium equivalent to about five grams of heavy water, which is harmless. When a large fraction of water (> 50%) in higher organisms is replaced by heavy water, the result is cell dysfunction and death.[4]

Heavy water was first produced in 1932, a few months after the discovery of deuterium.[5] With the discovery of nuclear fission in late 1938, and the need for a neutron moderator that captured few neutrons, heavy water became a component of early nuclear energy research. Since then, heavy water has been an essential component in some types of reactors, both those that generate power and those designed to produce isotopes for nuclear weapons. These heavy water reactors have the advantage of being able to run on natural uranium without using graphite moderators that pose radiological[6] and dust explosion[7] hazards in the decommissioning phase. Most modern reactors use enriched uranium with ordinary water as the moderator.

Other heavy forms of water

Semiheavy water

Semiheavy water, HDO, exists whenever there is water with light hydrogen (protium, 1
) and deuterium (D or 2
) in the mix. This is because hydrogen atoms (hydrogen-1 and deuterium) are rapidly exchanged between water molecules. Water containing 50% H and 50% D in its hydrogen actually contains about 50% HDO and 25% each of H
and D
, in dynamic equilibrium. In normal water, about 1 molecule in 3,200 is HDO (one hydrogen in 6,400 is in the form of D), and heavy water molecules (D
) only occur in a proportion of about 1 molecule in 41 million (i.e. one in 6,4002). Thus semiheavy water molecules are far more common than "pure" (homoisotopic) heavy water molecules.

Heavy-oxygen water

Water enriched in the heavier oxygen isotopes 17
and 18
is also commercially available, e.g., for use as a non-radioactive isotopic tracer. It is "heavy water" as it is denser than normal water (H180−
is approximately as dense as D
, H170−
is about halfway between H
and D
)—but is rarely called heavy water, since it does not contain the deuterium that gives D2O its unusual nuclear and biological properties. It is more expensive than D2O due to the more difficult separation of 17O and 18O.[8]

Tritiated water

Tritiated water contains tritium (3H) in place of protium (1H) or deuterium (2H), and therefore is radioactive.

Physical properties

Properties[9] D2O (Heavy water) HDO (Semiheavy water) H2O (Light water)
Freezing point 3.82 °C (38.9 °F) (276.97  K) 2.04 °C (35.7 °F) (275.19  K) 0.0 °C (32 °F) (273.15  K)
Boiling point 101.4 °C (214.5 °F) (374.55  K) 100.7 °C (213.3 °F) (373.85  K) 100.0 °C (212 °F) (373.15  K)
Density at STP (g/mL) 1.1056 1.054 0.9982
Temp. of maximum density 11.6 °C 3.98 °C[10]
Dynamic viscosity (at 20 °C, mPa·s) 1.2467 1.1248 1.0016
Surface tension (at 25 °C, N/m) 0.07187 0.07193 0.07198
Heat of fusion (kJ/mol) 6.132 6.227 6.00678
Heat of vaporisation (kJ/mol) 41.521 40.657
pH (at 25 °C) 7.43 (sometimes "pD") 7.266 (sometimes "pHD") 7.0
Refractive index (at 20 °C, 0.5893 μm)[11] 1.32844 1.33335

The physical properties of water and heavy water differ in several respects. Heavy water is 10.6% denser than ordinary water, and heavy water's physically different properties can be seen without equipment if a frozen sample is dropped into normal water, as it will sink. If the water is ice-cold the higher melting temperature of heavy ice can also be observed: it melts at 3.7 °C, and thus does not melt in ice-cold normal water.[12]

An early experiment reported not the "slightest difference" in taste between ordinary and heavy water.[13] However, rats given a choice between distilled normal water and heavy water were able to avoid the heavy water based on smell, and it may have a different taste.[14]

No physical properties are listed for "pure" semi-heavy water, because it is unstable as a bulk liquid. In the liquid state, a few water molecules are always in an ionised state, which means the hydrogen atoms can exchange among different oxygen atoms. Semi-heavy water could, in theory, be created via a chemical method, but it would rapidly transform into a dynamic mixture of 25% light water, 25% heavy water, and 50% semi-heavy water. However, if it were made in the gas phase and directly deposited into a solid, semi heavy water in the form of ice could be stable.


Harold Urey discovered the isotope deuterium in 1931 and was later able to concentrate it in water.[15] Urey's mentor Gilbert Newton Lewis isolated the first sample of pure heavy water by electrolysis in 1933.[16] George de Hevesy and Erich Hofer used heavy water in 1934 in one of the first biological tracer experiments, to estimate the rate of turnover of water in the human body.[17] The history of large-quantity production and use of heavy water in early nuclear experiments is given below.[18] Emilian Bratu and Otto Redlich studied the autodissociation of heavy water in 1934.[19]

Effect on biological systems

Different isotopes of chemical elements have slightly different chemical behaviors, but for most elements the differences are far too small to use, or even detect. For hydrogen, however, this is not true. The larger chemical isotope-effects seen between protium (light hydrogen) versus deuterium and tritium manifest because bond energies in chemistry are determined in quantum mechanics by equations in which the quantity of reduced mass of the nucleus and electrons appears. This quantity is altered in heavy-hydrogen compounds (of which deuterium oxide is the most common) more than for heavy-isotope substitution in other chemical elements. This isotope effect of heavy hydrogen is magnified further in biological systems, which are very sensitive to small changes in the solvent properties of water.

Heavy water is the only known chemical substance that affects the period of circadian oscillations, consistently increasing the length of each cycle. The effect is seen in unicellular organisms, green plants, isopods, insects, birds, mice, and hamsters. The mechanism is unknown.[20]

To perform their tasks, enzymes rely on their finely tuned networks of hydrogen bonds, both in the active center with their substrates, and outside the active center, to stabilize their tertiary structures. As a hydrogen bond with deuterium is slightly stronger[21] than one involving ordinary hydrogen, in a highly deuterated environment, some normal reactions in cells are disrupted.

Particularly hard-hit by heavy water are the delicate assemblies of mitotic spindle formation necessary for cell division in eukaryotes. Plants stop growing and seeds do not germinate when given only heavy water, because heavy water stops eukaryotic cell division.[22][23] The deuterium cell is larger and it is a modification of the direction of division.[24][25] The cell membrane also changes, and it reacts first to the impact of heavy water. In 1972 it was demonstrated that an increase in the percentage content of deuterium in water reduces plant growth.[26] Research conducted on the growth of prokaryote microorganisms in artificial conditions of a heavy hydrogen environment showed that in this environment, all the hydrogen atoms of water could be replaced with deuterium.[27][28][29] Experiments showed that bacteria can live in 98% heavy water.[30] However, all concentrations over 50% of deuterium in the water molecules were found to kill plants.

Effect on animals

Experiments in mice, rats, and dogs[31] have shown that a degree of 25% deuteration causes (sometimes irreversible) sterility, because neither gametes nor zygotes can develop. High concentrations of heavy water (90%) rapidly kill fish, tadpoles, flatworms, and Drosophila. Mammals (for example, rats) given heavy water to drink die after a week, at a time when their body water approaches about 50% deuteration.[32] The mode of death appears to be the same as that in cytotoxic poisoning (such as chemotherapy) or in acute radiation syndrome (though deuterium is not radioactive), and is due to deuterium's action in generally inhibiting cell division. It is more toxic to malignant cells than normal cells but the concentrations needed are too high for regular use.[31] As in chemotherapy, deuterium-poisoned mammals die of a failure of bone marrow (bleeding and infection) and intestinal-barrier functions (diarrhea and fluid loss).

Despite the problems of plants and animals in living with too much deuterium, prokaryotic organisms such as bacteria, which do not have the mitotic problems induced by deuterium, may be grown and propagated in fully deuterated conditions, resulting in replacement of all hydrogen atoms in the bacterial proteins and DNA with the deuterium isotope.[31][33]

Full replacement with heavy atom isotopes can be accomplished in higher organisms with other non-radioactive heavy isotopes (such as carbon-13, nitrogen-15, and oxygen-18), but this cannot be done for the stable heavy isotope of hydrogen.

Deuterium oxide is used to enhance boron neutron capture therapy, but this effect does not rely on the biological effects of deuterium per se, but instead on deuterium's ability to moderate (slow) neutrons without capturing them.[31]

Toxicity in humans

Because it would take a very large amount of heavy water to replace 25% to 50% of a human being's body water (water being in turn 50–75% of body weight[34]) with heavy water, accidental or intentional poisoning with heavy water is unlikely to the point of practical disregard. Poisoning would require that the victim ingest large amounts of heavy water without significant normal water intake for many days to produce any noticeable toxic effects.

Oral doses of heavy water in the range of several grams, as well as heavy oxygen 18O, are routinely used in human metabolic experiments. See doubly labeled water testing. Since one in about every 6,400 hydrogen atoms is deuterium, a 50 kg human containing 32 kg of body water would normally contain enough deuterium (about 1.1 g) to make 5.5 g of pure heavy water, so roughly this dose is required to double the amount of deuterium in the body.

The American patent U.S. Patent 5,223,269 is for the use of heavy water to treat hypertension (high blood pressure). A loss of blood pressure may partially explain the reported incidence of dizziness upon ingestion of heavy water. However, it is more likely that this symptom can be attributed to altered vestibular function.[35]

Heavy water radiation contamination confusion

Although many people associate heavy water primarily with its use in nuclear reactors, pure heavy water is not radioactive. Commercial-grade heavy water is slightly radioactive due to the presence of minute traces of natural tritium, but the same is true of ordinary water. Heavy water that has been used as a coolant in nuclear power plants contains substantially more tritium as a result of neutron bombardment of the deuterium in the heavy water (tritium is a health risk when ingested in large quantities).

In 1990, a disgruntled employee at the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station in Canada obtained a sample (estimated as about a "half cup") of heavy water from the primary heat transport loop of the nuclear reactor, and loaded it into a cafeteria drink dispenser. Eight employees drank some of the contaminated water. The incident was discovered when employees began leaving bioassay urine samples with elevated tritium levels. The quantity of heavy water involved was far below levels that could induce heavy water toxicity, but several employees received elevated radiation doses from tritium and neutron-activated chemicals in the water.[36] This was not an incident of heavy water poisoning, but rather radiation poisoning from other isotopes in the heavy water. Some news services were not careful to distinguish these points, and some of the public were left with the impression that heavy water is normally radioactive and more severely toxic than it is. Even if pure heavy water had been used in the water cooler indefinitely, it is not likely the incident would have been detected or caused harm, since no employee would be expected to get much more than 25% of their daily drinking water from such a source.[37]


On Earth, deuterated water, HDO, occurs naturally in normal water at a proportion of about 1 molecule in 3,200. This means that 1 in 6,400 hydrogen atoms is deuterium, which is 1 part in 3,200 by weight (hydrogen weight). The HDO may be separated from normal water by distillation or electrolysis and also by various chemical exchange processes, all of which exploit a kinetic isotope effect. (For more information about the isotopic distribution of deuterium in water, see Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water.) In theory, deuterium for heavy water could be created in a nuclear reactor, but separation from ordinary water is the cheapest bulk production process.

The difference in mass between the two hydrogen isotopes translates into a difference in the zero-point energy and thus into a slight difference in the speed of the reaction. Once HDO becomes a significant fraction of the water, heavy water becomes more prevalent as water molecules trade hydrogen atoms very frequently. Production of pure heavy water by distillation or electrolysis requires a large cascade of stills or electrolysis chambers and consumes large amounts of power, so the chemical methods are generally preferred.

The most cost-effective process for producing heavy water is the dual temperature exchange sulphide process (known as the Girdler sulfide process) developed in parallel by Karl-Hermann Geib and Jerome S. Spevack in 1943.[38]

An alternative process,[39] patented by Graham M. Keyser, uses lasers to selectively dissociate deuterated hydrofluorocarbons to form deuterium fluoride, which can then be separated by physical means. Although the energy consumption for this process is much less than for the Girdler sulfide process, this method is currently uneconomical due to the expense of procuring the necessary hydrofluorocarbons.

As noted, modern commercial heavy water is almost universally referred to, and sold as, deuterium oxide. It is most often sold in various grades of purity, from 98% enrichment to 99.75–99.98% deuterium enrichment (nuclear reactor grade) and occasionally even higher isotopic purity.


Argentina is the main producer of heavy water, using an ammonia/hydrogen exchange based plant supplied by Switzerland's Sulzer company. It is also a major exporter to countries such as Canada, US, and Germany as well as others. The heavy water production facility located at Arroyito (Neuquén Province) is the world's largest heavy water production facility. Argentina produces 200 tons of heavy water per year.[40] [41][42][43][44]

Soviet Union

In October 1939, Soviet physicists Yakov Borisovich Zel'dovich and Yulii Borisovich Khariton concluded that heavy water and carbon were the only feasible moderators for a natural uranium reactor, and in August, 1940, along with Georgy Flyorov, submitted a plan to the Russian Academy of Sciences calculating that 15 tons of heavy water were needed for a reactor. With the Soviet Union having no uranium mines at the time, young Academy workers were sent to Leningrad photographic shops to buy uranium nitrate, but the entire heavy water project was halted in 1941 when German forces invaded during Operation Barbarossa.

By 1943, Soviet scientists had discovered that all scientific literature relating to heavy water had disappeared from the West, which Flyorov in a letter warned Soviet leader Joseph Stalin about, and at which time there was only 2–3 kg of heavy water in the entire country. In late 1943, the Soviet purchasing commission in the U.S. obtained 1 kg of heavy water and a further 100 kg in February 1945, and upon World War II ending, the NKVD took over the project.

In October 1946, as part of the Russian Alsos, the NKVD deported to the Soviet Union from Germany the German scientists who had worked on heavy water production during the war, including the inventor of the Girdler sulfide process Karl-Hermann Geib. These German scientists worked under the supervison of German physical chemist Max Volmer at the Institute of Physical Chemistry in Moscow with the plant they constructed producing large quantities of heavy water by 1948.[38][45]

United States

During the Manhattan Project the United States constructed three heavy water production plants as part of the P-9 Project at Morgantown Ordnance Works, near Morgantown, West Virginia; at the Wabash River Ordnance Works, near Dana and Newport, Indiana; and at the Alabama Ordnance Works, near Childersburg and Sylacauga, Alabama. Heavy water was also acquired from the Cominco plant in Trail, British Columbia (Canada). The Chicago Pile-3 experimental reactor used heavy water as a moderator and went critical in 1944. The three domestic production plants were shut down in 1945 after producing around 20 metric tons of product (around 20,000 litres).[46] The Wabash plant was reopened and began resumption of heavy water production in 1952.

In 1953, the United States began using heavy water in plutonium production reactors at the Savannah River Site. The first of the five heavy water reactors came online in 1953, and the last was placed in cold shutdown in 1996. The SRS reactors were heavy water reactors so that they could produce both plutonium and tritium for the US nuclear weapons program.

The U.S. developed the Girdler sulfide chemical exchange production process—which was first demonstrated on a large scale at the Dana, Indiana plant in 1945 and at the Savannah River Plant, South Carolina in 1952. DuPont operated the SRP for the USDOE until 1 April 1989, when Westinghouse took it over.


India is one of the world's largest producers of heavy water through its Heavy Water Board and also exports to countries like Republic of Korea and the US. Development of heavy water process in India happened in three phases: The first phase (late 1950s to mid-1980s) was a period of technology development, the second phase was of deployment of technology and process stabilisation (mid-1980s to early 1990s) and third phase saw consolidation and a shift towards improvement in production and energy conservation.

Empire of Japan

In the 1930s, it was suspected by the United States and Soviet Union that Austrian chemist Fritz Johann Hansgirg built a pilot plant for the Empire of Japan in Japanese ruled northern Korea to produce heavy water by using a new process he had invented.[47]


"Heavy water" made by Norsk Hydro

In 1934, Norsk Hydro built the first commercial heavy water plant at Vemork, Tinn, with a capacity of 12 tonnes per year.[48] From 1940 and throughout World War II, the plant was under German control and the Allies decided to destroy the plant and its heavy water to inhibit German development of nuclear weapons. In late 1942, a planned raid by British airborne troops failed, both gliders crashing. The raiders were killed in the crash or subsequently executed by the Germans. On the night of 27 February 1943 Operation Gunnerside succeeded. Norwegian commandos and local resistance managed to demolish small, but key parts of the electrolytic cells, dumping the accumulated heavy water down the factory drains.[49]

On 16 November 1943, the Allied air forces dropped more than 400 bombs on the site. The Allied air raid prompted the Nazi government to move all available heavy water to Germany for safekeeping. On 20 February 1944, a Norwegian partisan sank the ferry M/F Hydro carrying heavy water across Lake Tinn, at the cost of 14 Norwegian civilian lives, and most of the heavy water was presumably lost. A few of the barrels were only half full, and therefore could float, and may have been salvaged and transported to Germany.

Recent investigation of production records at Norsk Hydro and analysis of an intact barrel that was salvaged in 2004 revealed that although the barrels in this shipment contained water of pH 14—indicative of the alkaline electrolytic refinement process—they did not contain high concentrations of D2O.[50] Despite the apparent size of the shipment, the total quantity of pure heavy water was quite small, most barrels only containing 0.5–1% pure heavy water. The Germans would have needed a total of about 5 tons of heavy water to get a nuclear reactor running. The manifest clearly indicated that there was only half a ton of heavy water being transported to Germany. Hydro was carrying far too little heavy water for one reactor, let alone the 10 or more tons needed to make enough plutonium for a nuclear weapon.[50]

Israel admitted running the Dimona reactor with Norwegian heavy water sold to it in 1959. Through re-export using Romania and Germany, India probably also used Norwegian heavy water.[51][52]


As part of its contribution to the Manhattan Project, Canada built and operated a 6-tonnes-per-year electrolytic heavy water plant at Trail, British Columbia, which started operation in 1943.

The Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) design of power reactor requires large quantities of heavy water to act as a neutron moderator and coolant. AECL ordered two heavy water plants, which were built and operated in Atlantic Canada at Glace Bay, Nova Scotia (by Deuterium of Canada Limited) and Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia (by General Electric Canada). These plants proved to have significant design, construction and production problems and so AECL built the Bruce Heavy Water Plant (44°11′07″N 81°21′42″W / 44.1854°N 81.3618°W / 44.1854; -81.3618),[53] which it later sold to Ontario Hydro, to ensure a reliable supply of heavy water for future power plants. The two Nova Scotia plants were shut down in 1985 when their production proved unnecessary.

The Bruce Heavy Water Plant in Ontario was the world's largest heavy water production plant with a capacity of 700 tonnes per year. It used the Girdler sulfide process to produce heavy water, and required 340,000 tonnes of feed water to produce one tonne of heavy water. It was part of a complex that included eight CANDU reactors, which provided heat and power for the heavy water plant. The site was located at Douglas Point near Tiverton, Ontario on Lake Huron where it had access to the waters of the Great Lakes.

The Bruce plant was commissioned in 1979 to provide heavy water for a large increase in Ontario's nuclear power generation. The plants were significantly more efficient than planned and only three of the planned four units were eventually commissioned. In addition, the nuclear power programme was slowed down and effectively stopped due to a perceived oversupply of electricity, later shown to be temporary, in 1993. Improved efficiency in the use and recycling of heavy water plus the over-production at Bruce left Canada with enough heavy water for its anticipated future needs. Also, the Girdler process involves large amounts of hydrogen sulfide, raising environmental concerns if there should be a release. The Bruce heavy water plant was shut down in 1997, after which the plant was gradually dismantled and the site cleared.

Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) is currently researching other more efficient and environmentally benign processes for creating heavy water. This is essential for the future of the CANDU reactors since heavy water represents about 20% of the capital cost of each reactor.


Since 1996 a plant for production of heavy water was being constructed at Khondab near Arak.[54] On 26 August 2006, Iranian President Ahmadinejad inaugurated the expansion of the country's heavy-water plant. Iran has indicated that the heavy-water production facility will operate in tandem with a 40 MW research reactor that had a scheduled completion date in 2009.[55][56]

Iran produced deuterated solvents in early 2011 for the first time.[57]

The core of the IR-40 is supposed to be re-designed based on the nuclear agreement in July 2015.

Iran is currently allowed to store only 130 Tons of heavy-water.


The 50 MWt heavy water and natural uranium research reactor at Khushab, in Punjab province, is a central element of Pakistan's program for production of plutonium, deuterium and tritium for advanced compact warheads (i.e. thermonuclear weapons). Pakistan succeeded in acquiring a tritium purification and storage plant and deuterium and tritium precursor materials from two German firms.[58]

Other countries

Romania produces heavy water at the Drobeta Girdler sulfide plant for domestic and export purposes.[59]

France operated a small plant during the 1950s and 1960s.

Heavy water exists in elevated concentration in Lake Tanganyika in East Africa.[60] It is likely that similar elevated concentrations exist in lakes with similar limnology.


Nuclear magnetic resonance

Deuterium oxide is used in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy when using water as solvent if the nuclide of interest is hydrogen. This is because the signal from light-water (1H2O) solvent molecules interfere with observing the signal from the molecule of interest dissolved in it. Deuterium has a different magnetic moment and therefore does not contribute to the 1H-NMR signal at the hydrogen-1 resonance frequency.

For some experiments, it may be desirable to identify the labile hydrogens on a compound, that is hydrogens that can easily exchange away as H+ ions on some positions in a molecule. With addition of D2O, sometimes referred to as a D2O shake, labile hydrogens exchange away and are substituted by deuterium (2H) atoms. These positions in the molecule then do not appear in the 1H-NMR spectrum.

Organic chemistry

Deuterium oxide is often used as the source of deuterium for preparing specifically labelled isotopologues of organic compounds. For example, C-H bonds adjacent to ketonic carbonyl groups can be replaced by C-D bonds, using acid or base catalysis. Trimethylsulfoxonium iodide, made from dimethyl sulfoxide and methyl iodide can be recrystallized from deuterium oxide, and then dissociated to regenerate methyl iodide and dimethyl sulfoxide, both deuterium labelled. In cases where specific double labelling by deuterium and tritium is contemplated, the researcher must be aware that deuterium oxide, depending upon age and origin, can contain some tritium.

Fourier transform spectroscopy

Deuterium oxide is often used instead of water when collecting FTIR spectra of proteins in solution. H2O creates a strong band that overlaps with the amide I region of proteins. The band from D2O is shifted away from the amide I region.

Neutron moderator

Heavy water is used in certain types of nuclear reactors, where it acts as a neutron moderator to slow down neutrons so that they are more likely to react with the fissile uranium-235 than with uranium-238, which captures neutrons without fissioning. The CANDU reactor uses this design. Light water also acts as a moderator, but because light water absorbs more neutrons than heavy water, reactors using light water for a reactor moderator must use enriched uranium rather than natural uranium, otherwise criticality is impossible. A significant fraction of outdated power reactors, such as the RBMK reactors in the USSR, were constructed using normal water for cooling but graphite as a moderator. However, the danger of graphite in power reactors (graphite fires in part led to the Chernobyl disaster) has led to the discontinuation of graphite in standard reactor designs.

Because they do not require uranium enrichment, heavy water reactors are more of a concern in regards to nuclear proliferation. The breeding and extraction of plutonium can be a relatively rapid and cheap route to building a nuclear weapon, as chemical separation of plutonium from fuel is easier than isotopic separation of U-235 from natural uranium. Among current and past nuclear weapons states, Israel, India, and North Korea first used plutonium from heavy water moderated reactors burning natural uranium, while China, South Africa and Pakistan first built weapons using highly enriched uranium.

In the U.S., however, the first experimental atomic reactor (1942), as well as the Manhattan Project Hanford production reactors that produced the plutonium for the Trinity test and Fat Man bombs, all used pure carbon (graphite) neutron moderators combined with normal water cooling pipes. They functioned with neither enriched uranium nor heavy water. Russian and British plutonium production also used graphite-moderated reactors.

There is no evidence that civilian heavy water power reactors—such as the CANDU or Atucha designs—have been used to produce military fissile materials. In nations that do not already possess nuclear weapons, nuclear material at these facilities is under IAEA safeguards to discourage any diversion.

Due to its potential for use in nuclear weapons programs, the possession or import/export of large industrial quantities of heavy water are subject to government control in several countries. Suppliers of heavy water and heavy water production technology typically apply IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) administered safeguards and material accounting to heavy water. (In Australia, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act 1987.) In the U.S. and Canada, non-industrial quantities of heavy water (i.e., in the gram to kg range) are routinely available without special license through chemical supply dealers and commercial companies such as the world's former major producer Ontario Hydro.

Neutrino detector

The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) in Sudbury, Ontario used 1,000 tonnes of heavy water on loan from Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. The neutrino detector is 6,800 feet (2,100 m) underground in a mine, to shield it from muons produced by cosmic rays. SNO was built to answer the question of whether or not electron-type neutrinos produced by fusion in the Sun (the only type the Sun should be producing directly, according to theory) might be able to turn into other types of neutrinos on the way to Earth. SNO detects the Cherenkov radiation in the water from high-energy electrons produced from electron-type neutrinos as they undergo charged current (CC) interactions with neutrons in deuterium, turning them into protons and electrons (however, only the electrons are fast enough to produce Cherenkov radiation for detection). SNO also detects neutrino↔electron scattering (ES) events, where the neutrino transfers energy to the electron, which then proceeds to generate Cherenkov radiation distinguishable from that produced by CC events. The first of these two reactions is produced only by electron-type neutrinos, while the second can be caused by all of the neutrino flavors. The use of deuterium is critical to the SNO function, because all three "flavours" (types) of neutrinos[61] may be detected in a third type of reaction as well, neutrino-disintegration, in which a neutrino of any type (electron, muon, or tau) scatters from a deuterium nucleus (deuteron), transferring enough energy to break up the loosely bound deuteron into a free neutron and proton via a neutral current (NC) interaction. This event is detected when the free neutron is absorbed by 35Cl present from NaCl deliberately dissolved in the heavy water, causing emission of characteristic capture gamma rays. Thus, in this experiment, heavy water not only provides the transparent medium necessary to produce and visualize Cherenkov radiation, but it also provides deuterium to detect exotic mu type (μ) and tau (τ) neutrinos, as well as a non-absorbent moderator medium to preserve free neutrons from this reaction, until they can be absorbed by an easily detected neutron-activated isotope.

Metabolic rate testing in physiology/biology

Heavy water is employed as part of a mixture with H218O for a common and safe test of mean metabolic rate in humans and animals undergoing their normal activities. This metabolic test is usually called the doubly labeled water test.

Tritium production

Tritium is the active substance in self-powered lighting and controlled nuclear fusion, its other uses including autoradiography and radioactive labeling. It is also used in nuclear weapon design for boosted fission weapons and initiators. Some tritium is created in heavy water moderated reactors when deuterium captures a neutron. This reaction has a small cross-section (probability of a single neutron-capture event) and produces only small amounts of tritium, although enough to justify cleaning tritium from the moderator every few years to reduce the environmental risk of tritium escape.

Producing a lot of tritium in this way would require reactors with very high neutron fluxes, or with a very high proportion of heavy water to nuclear fuel and very low neutron absorption by other reactor material. The tritium would then have to be recovered by isotope separation from a much larger quantity of deuterium, unlike production from lithium-6 (the present method), where only chemical separation is needed.

Deuterium's absorption cross section for thermal neutrons is 0.52 millibarns (barn=10−28 m2, milli=1/1000), while oxygen-16's is 0.19 millibarns and oxygen-17's is 0.24 barns. 17O makes up 0.038% of natural oxygen, making the overall cross section 0.28 millibarns. Therefore, in D2O with natural oxygen, 21% of neutron captures are on oxygen, rising higher as 17O builds up from neutron capture on 16O. Also, 17O may emit an alpha particle on neutron capture, producing radioactive carbon-14.

See also



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