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Platinum Metals Rev., 2004, 48, (4), 173
doi: 10.1595/147106704X4826

The Discoverers of the Osmium Isotopes


  • J. W. Arblaster
  • Coleshill Laboratories,
  • Gorsey Lane, Coleshill, West Midlands B46 1JU, U.K.
  • Email:

Article Synopsis

This is the third in a series of reviews of circumstances surrounding the discoveries of the isotopes of the six platinum group elements; it concerns the discovery of the thirty-four isotopes of osmium. The first review on platinum isotopes was published in this Journal in October 2000, and the second review on iridium isotopes was published in October 2003 (1).

Of the thirty-four isotopes of osmium that we know today, seven occur naturally with the following authorised isotopic abundances (2) (Table I):

Table I

The Naturally Occurring Isotopes of Osmium.

Mass number Isotopic abundance, %
184Os 0.02
186Os 1.59
187Os 1.96
188Os 13.24
189Os 16.15
190Os 26.26
192Os 40.78

The discovery of the six major isotopes of osmium was reported by F. W. Aston (Figure 1) in 1931 (3) after being detected mass spectrographically at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University, England. The rare isotope, 184Os, was discovered by A. O. C. Nier (Figure 2) in 1937 (4) using a new type of high resolution mass spectrometer at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A., where he was carrying out a redetermination of the isotopic abundances of osmium. Nier's abundance measurements became the definitive values for osmium for over half a century, only being superseded in 1990 by the measurements of Völkening, Walczyk and Heumann (5). These latter results were immediately incorporated into the 1991 atomic weight table (6).

Fig. 1

Francis William Aston 1875–1945

F. W. Aston was born in Harbourne, Birmingham, England, and educated at Birmingham University. In 1909 he joined J. J. Thompson at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, as his assistant. At that time Thompson was working with positive rays from which he could determine the atomic weights of elements. Thompson noted that for the element neon, in addition to the mass 20, there was always a ghost at mass 22. This suggested the extremely controversial idea that naturally occurring stable elements also had isotopes in addition to those being found for the heavy radioactive elements.

After serving in World War I, Aston eventually returned to the Cavendish Laboratory and in 1919 built the first mass spectrograph. He was immediately able to prove that neon contained at least two isotopes of masses 20 and 22 in the ratio 9:1, and thus explained the odd atomic weight of 20.2. In 1920 Aston analysed chlorine and found that it contained two isotopes of masses 35 and 37 in the ratio 3:1. This explained the unusual atomic weight of chlorine which is 35.5.

Between 1919 and 1935, and through three generations of mass spectrographs, Aston personally discovered 212 of the 287 naturally occurring nuclides of primordial origin. His determination of nuclide masses showed that they were all very close to whole numbers, and usual differed by a small amount known as the “packing fraction”. By direct measurement or interpolation of the packing fraction it was possible to obtain atomic weights, especially for mononuclidic elements, and these were vastly superior to those being determined by chemical methods.

Aston was awarded the 1922 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the invention of the mass spectrograph

Photo by courtesy of AIP Emilio Sergè Visual Archives, W. F. Meggers Gallery of Nobel Laureates


Fig. 2

Alfred Otto Carl Nier 1911–1994

A. O. C. Nier was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A. and studied at the University of Minnesota where he remained for most of his academic career. After graduating, Nier's first important contribution was the development of the double focusing mass spectrograph in which, by accelerating a beam of ions through an electrical field at an angle of ninety degrees and then through a magnetic field at an angle of sixty degrees, he was able to increase considerably the resolution of ions of similar atomic mass.

This instrument allowed him, in 1935, to discover the rare potassium isotope40K. From 1936 to 1938 he was at Harvard University, and between 1937 and 1938, he discovered five more rare naturally occurring nuclides: 36S, 46Ca, 48Ca, 184Os and 234U. His accurate measurements of the ratio of uranium isotopes: 235U to 238U in many minerals led to the development of the uranium/lead cosmochronometer. In 1940 he separated 235U from 238U: the first isotope separation, and experiments on 235U proved that it was the fission isotope of uranium, and not the more abundant 238U.

This research led to the Manhattan Project, on which he worked from 1943 to 1945. Mass spectrographs, designed by Nier, were used extensively during this time for monitoring 235U to 238U separations. In the early 1950s Nier developed the mass spectrometer which differs from the mass spectrograph in that ion detection is electrical rather than by photographic plate.

Between 1956 and 1979 Nier spectrometers were used to measure the masses of nearly all the stable nuclides, while his isotopic abundance measurements for nitrogen, oxygen, the heavy inert gases and the alkaline earth elements became the definitive values for a long time. Nier also developed the miniature mass spectrometers which were used on the Viking Landers sent to Mars to sample the atmosphere

Photo by University of Minnesota, courtesy AIP Emilio Sergè Visual Archives


Of the naturally occurring isotopes, Viola, Roche and Minor suggested in 1974 (7) that 186Os was radioactive with a half-life of 2.0 × 1015 years, and this remains the presently accepted value (8). Mattauch's Rule (9) states that if two adjacent elements have nuclides of the same mass then at least one of them must be radioactive. In the case of the naturally occurring pair 187Re–187Os, the 187Re is radioactive with a half-life of 4.12 × 1010 years (8). Since 187Re undergoes beta decay to 187Os, then in a mixture of rhenium-platinum element ores, the over-abundance of 187Os with respect to that expected for the primordial abundance (the actual measurements are 187Re/186Os and 187Os/186Os) leads to an estimate of the excess 187Os, and from this is obtained a direct assessment of the age of the ores. The half-life of 186Os is so long that it can be considered to be “stable” for these measurements.

The use of this cosmochronometer was first suggested by Clayton in 1963 (10).

Artificial Osmium Isotopes

Prior to 1940 there appears to have been mention of only one radioactive osmium isotope: by Kurchatov et al. in 1935 (11) with a half-life of 40 hours. This now seems likely to have been 193Os.

In 1940 Zingg (12) correctly identified both 191Os with a 10 day half-life (modern value 15.4 days) and 193Os with a 30 hour half-life (the presently accepted value is 30.11 hours). However, immediately afterwards Seaborg and Friedlander (13) switched these around and there then followed a bizarre period of seven years in which all of the property measurements on 191Os were ascribed to 193Os, and vice versa, until the mistake was finally corrected in the 1948 edition of the “Table of Isotopes” (14).

The most prolific period for the discovery of radioactive osmium isotopes was the 1970s with fourteen ground states and one isomeric state being identified. The most discovered by any one person or group was four by Cabot et al. in 1977 (15) and 1978 (16).

The lightest osmium isotope, 162Os, still only appears to be an alpha emitter with no evidence of proton decay, so the drip line for osmium has not been reached, in contrast to 167Ir for iridium. The most likely reason for this is that with an even atomic number, osmium nuclides are likely to be more tightly bound than those for iridium, which has an odd atomic number, so it is not surprising that proton decay has not yet been seen from osmium isotopes.

In Table II, the same criteria for discovery are used as in the prior reviews on platinum and iridium (1). Notes to Table II, Some of the terms used for this review, and the decay modes are given in Tables III, IV and V. The half-lifes given in the tables are from the revised NUBASE database (8).

Table II

The Discoverers of the Osmium Isotopes

Mass number Half-life Decay modes Year of discovery* Discoverers Ref. Notes
162 1.87 ms α 1989 Hofmann et al. 17
163 5.5 ms α, EC + β+? 1981 Hofmann et al. 18, 19 A
164 21 ms α, EC + β+ 1981 Hofmann et al. 18, 19
165 71 ms α, EC + β+ 1978 Cabot et al. 16 B
166 216 ms α, EC + β+ 1977 Cabot et al. 15
167 810 ms α, EC + β+ 1977 Cabot et al. 15
168 2.06 s EC + β+, α 1977 Cabot et al. 15
169 3.46 s EC + β+, α 1972 Toth et al. 21
170 7.46 s EC + β+, α 1972 Toth et al. 22
171 8.3 s EC + β+, α 1972 Toth et al. 22
172 19.2 s EC + β+, α 1970 Borgreen and Hyde 23
173 22.4 s EC + β+, α 1970 Borgreen and Hyde 23
174 44 s EC + β+, α 1970 Borgreen and Hyde 23
175 1.4 min EC + β+ 1972 Berlovich et al. 24
176 3.6 min EC + β+ 1970 1: Arlt et al. 25
2: de Boer et al. 26
177 3.0 min EC + β+ 1970 Arlt 25
178 5.0 min EC + β+ 1968 Belyaev et al. 27
179 6.5 min EC + β+ 1968 Belyaev et al. 27
180 21.5 min EC + β+ 1965 1: Belyaev et al. 28, 29 C
2: Hofstetter and Daly 30, 31
181 1.75 h EC + β+ 1966 Hofstetter and Daly 30 D
181m 2.7 min EC + β+ 1966 Hofstetter and Daly 30 E
182 22.10 h EC 1950 Stover 37
183 13.0 h EC + β+ 1950 Stover 37
183m 9.9 h EC + β+, IT 1957 Foster, Hilborn and Yaffe 32
184 Stable - 1937 Nier 4
185 93.6 d EC 1946 Goodman and Pool 38
186 2.0 × 1015y α 1931 Aston 3 F
187 Stable - 1931 Aston 3 G
188 Stable - 1931 Aston 3 H
189 Stable - 1931 Aston 3
189m 5.8 h IT 1958 Scharff-Goldhaber et al. 43 I
190 Stable - 1931 Aston 3
190m 9.9 min IT 1955 Aten et al. 44
191 15.4 d β 1940 Zingg 12
191m 13.10 h IT 1952 Swan and Hill 45
192 Stable - 1931 Aston 3 J
192m 5.9 s IT, β 1973 Pakkenen and Heikkinen 48 K
193 30.11 h β? 1940 Zingg 12 L
194 6.0 y β 1951 Lindner 52
195 - β? M
196 34.9 min β 1976 Katcoff et al. 58, 59

[i] * The year of discovery is taken as available manuscript and conference dates. Where these are not available then the year of discovery is the publishing date

Table III
Notes to Table II
A 163Os Alpha energy only. The half-life was determined by Page et al. in 1995 (20).
B 165Os Alpha energy only. The half-life was determined by Hofmann et al. (18, 19).
C 180Os In 1957 Foster, Holborn and Yaffe (32) assigned a 23 min half-life activity to 181Os but according to Hofstetter and Daly (30) this now appears to have more likely been 180Os. In 1965 Bedrosyan et al. (33) identified a 23 min half-life activity but did not assign a mass number.
D 181Os A 2.7 h half-life activity described by Surkov et al. in 1960 (34) and apparently associated with 181Os was not observed by Hofstetter and Daly (30). Balyaev et al. (29) observed a 2.5 h half-life activity which appeared to confirm the observations of Surkov et al.
E 181mOs Hofstetter and Daly's claim to have identified this isomeric state was only tentative but was confirmed by Goudsmit in 1967 (35). Shortly before the observations of Hofstetter and Daly, Aten and Kapteyn (36) also identified a 2.8 min half-life activity but gave no mass assignment.
F 186Os The half-life was measured by Viola, Roche and Minor in 1974 (7).
G 187Os Chu in 1950 (39) and Greenlees and Kuo in 1956 (40) observed activities with half-lifes of 35 h and 39 h, respectively, which they suggested could be an isomer of 187Os. However such an activity was not observed by either Newton (41) or Merz (42).
H 188Os A 26 d half-life activity suggested by Greenlees and Kuo (40) as being an isomer of 188Os was not observed by Merz (42).
I 189mOs A 6 h half-life activity observed by Chu in 1950 (39) and a 7.2 h half-life activity observed by Greenlees and Kuo in 1950 (40) were both likely to have been 189mOs.
J 192Os Fremlin and Walters (46) suggested that the isotope, although described as being “stable”, could be radioactive with a half-life exceeding 2.3 × 1014 y. Tretyak and Zdesenko (47) reassessed the data and suggested a revised value of greater than 9.8 × 1012 y which indicates that the suggestion of radioactivity is inconclusive.
K 192mOs A 6 s half-life activity assigned to 192Re by Blachot, Monnand and Moussa in 1965 (49) was reassigned to 192mOs by Pakkenen and Heikkinen (48). Hermann et al. (50) almost certainly discovered 192mOs in 1970 but could not decide as to whether it was 192Re or 192mOs.
L 193Os A 40 h half-life activity described by Kurchatov et al. in 1935 (11) was assigned to 193Os by the “Table of Isotopes” (51).
M 195Os In 1957 Baró and Rey (53) and Rey and Baró (54) identified a 6.5 min half-life activity which they assigned to 195Os, but in 1974 Colle et al. (55) showed that this was the rubidium isotope 81Rb, so 195Os remains undiscovered. Takahashi, Yamada and Kondoh (57) estimated the half-life to be about 9 min.
Table IV
Some of the Terms Used for this Review
Atomic number the number of protons in the nucleus
Mass number the combined number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus
Nuclide and isotope A nuclide is an entity characterised by the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus. For nuclides of the same element the number of protons remains the same but the number of neutrons may vary. Such nuclides are known collectively as the isotopes of the element. Although the term isotope implies plurality it is sometimes used loosely in place of nuclide.
Half-life the time taken for the activity of a radioactive nuclide to fall to half its previous value
Electron volt (eV) The energy acquired by any charged particle carrying a unit (electronic) charge when it falls through a potential of one volt, equivalent to 1.602 × 1019 J. The more useful unit is the mega (million) electron volt, MeV.
Table V
Decay Modes
α Alpha decay is the emittance of alpha particles which are 4He nuclei. Thus the atomic number of the daughter nuclide is lower by two and the mass number is lower by four.
β Beta or electron decay for neutron-rich nuclides is the emittance of an electron (and an anti-neutrino) as a neutron decays to a proton. The mass number of the daughter nucleus remains the same but the atomic number increases by one.
β+ Beta or positron decay for neutron-deficient nuclides is the emittance of a positron (and a neutrino) as a proton decays to a neutron. The mass number of the daughter nucleus remains the same but the atomic number decreases by one. However, this decay mode cannot occur unless the decay energy exceeds 1.022 MeV (twice the electron mass in energy units). Positron decay is always associated with orbital electron capture (EC).
EC Orbital electron capture. The nucleus captures an extranuclear (orbital) electron which reacts with a proton to form a neutron and a neutrino, so that, as with positron decay, the mass number of the daughter nucleus remains the same but the atomic number decreases by one.
IT Isomeric transition, in which a high energy state of a nuclide (isomeric state or isomer) usually decays by cascade emission of γ (gamma) rays (the highest energy form of electromagnetic radiation) to lower energy levels until the ground state is reached. However, certain low level states may also decay independently to other nuclides.


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Thanks to Mrs Linda Porter for typing the manuscript.

Supplementary Material


Cosmochronology is the measurement of the age of stellar bodies by studying rock samples, via measurement of the amount of a daughter nuclide formed in situ with the long lived radioactive parent nuclide. If the daughter nuclide is not radioactive, then if N2 is the number of daughter atoms and N10 the number of parent atoms, N2 = N10 e1t, where λ1 is the decay constant of the parent nuclide (equal to loge2/half life) and t is the amount of time since the daughter started to be formed. This can indicate the age of the rock containing the nuclides.

If the daughter is also radioactive the formula becomes:

N2 = λ1/ λ2 - λ1 . N10 (e- λ1t - e- λ2t)

where λ2 is the decay constant of the daughter product.

In practice the situation is complicated, with the possible formation of the daughter nuclide at the same time as the parent in the same supernova shell, so both could be present in the ore body after condensation (in which case an additional term N20 . e- λ2t is added to the right hand side of the second equation, where N20 is the original number of daughter atoms).

Further nuclear reactions or weathering of rock samples so parent or daughter are removed, may also occur.

Positive Ray Analysis

In a discharge tube with a perforated disc cathode, luminous rays emerge in straight lines through the perforations away from the anode.

In 1895, J. Perrin showed that these rays had positive charge. W. Wein, in 1898, after studying the deflection of the rays in electric and magnetic fields, showed they consisted of electrically charged atoms or molecules of the same composition as the gases present in the discharge tube. In 1907, J. J. Thomson called them "positive rays". He realised that if the deflections of gases in the tubes were measured in electric and magnetic fields, and compared with standard gases such as hydrogen and oxygen, then their atomic masses could be determined.

However, Thomson did not realise that the apparatus was sensitive enough to distinguish individual isotopes. Hence, he thought that the observation of a second isotope of neon, of mass 22, was a hydride of neon, NeH2, even though such a substance cannot exist. After the First World War, Aston in England and A. J. Dempster in the U.S.A. improved the sophistication of the positive ray apparatus and designed and built the first mass spectrographs.

The Author

John W. Arblaster is Chief Chemist working in metallurgical analysis at Coleshill Laboratories, in the West Midlands of England. He is interested in the history of science and in the evaluation of the thermodynamic and crystallographic properties of the elements.

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