Isotopes are variants of a particular chemical element which differ in neutron number, and consequently in nucleon number. All isotopes of a given element have the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons in each atom.[1]

The term isotope is formed from the Greek roots isos (ἴσος "equal") and topos (τόπος "place"), meaning "the same place"; thus, the meaning behind the name is that different isotopes of a single element occupy the same position on the periodic table.[2] It was coined by a Scottish doctor and writer Margaret Todd in 1913 in a suggestion to chemist Frederick Soddy.

The number of protons within the atom's nucleus is called atomic number and is equal to the number of electrons in the neutral (non-ionized) atom. Each atomic number identifies a specific element, but not the isotope; an atom of a given element may have a wide range in its number of neutrons. The number of nucleons (both protons and neutrons) in the nucleus is the atom's mass number, and each isotope of a given element has a different mass number.

For example, carbon-12, carbon-13, and carbon-14 are three isotopes of the element carbon with mass numbers 12, 13, and 14, respectively. The atomic number of carbon is 6, which means that every carbon atom has 6 protons, so that the neutron numbers of these isotopes are 6, 7, and 8 respectively.

Hydrogen Deuterium Tritium Nuclei Schmatic-en
The three naturally-occurring isotopes of hydrogen. The fact that each isotope has one proton makes them all variants of hydrogen: the identity of the isotope is given by the number of neutrons. From left to right, the isotopes are protium (1H) with zero neutrons, deuterium (2H) with one neutron, and tritium (3H) with two neutrons.

Isotope vs. nuclide

A nuclide is a species of an atom with a specific number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus, for example carbon-13 with 6 protons and 7 neutrons. The nuclide concept (referring to individual nuclear species) emphasizes nuclear properties over chemical properties, whereas the isotope concept (grouping all atoms of each element) emphasizes chemical over nuclear. The neutron number has large effects on nuclear properties, but its effect on chemical properties is negligible for most elements. Even in the case of the lightest elements where the ratio of neutron number to atomic number varies the most between isotopes it usually has only a small effect, although it does matter in some circumstances (for hydrogen, the lightest element, the isotope effect is large enough to strongly affect biology). The term isotopes (originally also isotopic elements[3], now sometimes isotopic nuclides[4]) is intended to imply comparison (like synonyms or isomers), for example: the nuclides 12
, 13
, 14
are isotopes (nuclides with the same atomic number but different mass numbers[5]), but 40
, 40
, 40
are isobars (nuclides with the same mass number[6]). However, because isotope is the older term, it is better known than nuclide, and is still sometimes used in contexts where nuclide might be more appropriate, such as nuclear technology and nuclear medicine.


An isotope and/or nuclide is specified by the name of the particular element (this indicates the atomic number) followed by a hyphen and the mass number (e.g. helium-3, helium-4, carbon-12, carbon-14, uranium-235 and uranium-239).[7] When a chemical symbol is used, e.g. "C" for carbon, standard notation (now known as "AZE notation" because A is the mass number, Z the atomic number, and E for element) is to indicate the mass number (number of nucleons) with a superscript at the upper left of the chemical symbol and to indicate the atomic number with a subscript at the lower left (e.g. 3
, 4
, 12
, 14
, 235
, and 239
).[8] Because the atomic number is given by the element symbol, it is common to state only the mass number in the superscript and leave out the atomic number subscript (e.g. 3
, 4
, 12
, 14
, 235
, and 239
). The letter m is sometimes appended after the mass number to indicate a nuclear isomer, a metastable or energetically-excited nuclear state (as opposed to the lowest-energy ground state), for example 180m

The common pronunciation of the AZE notation is different from how it is written: 4
is commonly pronounced as helium-four instead of four-two-helium, and 235
as uranium two-thirty-five (American English) or uranium-two-three-five (British) instead of 235-92-uranium.

Radioactive, primordial, and stable isotopes

Some isotopes/nuclides are radioactive, and are therefore referred to as radioisotopes or radionuclides, whereas others have never been observed to decay radioactively and are referred to as stable isotopes or stable nuclides. For example, 14
is a radioactive form of carbon, whereas 12
and 13
are stable isotopes. There are about 339 naturally occurring nuclides on Earth,[9] of which 286 are primordial nuclides, meaning that they have existed since the Solar System's formation.

Primordial nuclides include 32 nuclides with very long half-lives (over 100 million years) and 253 that are formally considered as "stable nuclides",[9] because they have not been observed to decay. In most cases, for obvious reasons, if an element has stable isotopes, those isotopes predominate in the elemental abundance found on Earth and in the Solar System. However, in the cases of three elements (tellurium, indium, and rhenium) the most abundant isotope found in nature is actually one (or two) extremely long-lived radioisotope(s) of the element, despite these elements having one or more stable isotopes.

Theory predicts that many apparently "stable" isotopes/nuclides are radioactive, with extremely long half-lives (discounting the possibility of proton decay, which would make all nuclides ultimately unstable). Some stable nuclides are in theory energetically susceptible to other known forms of decay, such as alpha decay or double beta decay, but no decay products have yet been observed, and so these isotopes are said to be "observationally stable". The predicted half-lives for these nuclides often greatly exceed the estimated age of the universe, and in fact there are also 27 known radionuclides (see primordial nuclide) with half-lives longer than the age of the universe.

Adding in the radioactive nuclides that have been created artificially, there are 3,339 currently known nuclides.[10] These include 905 nuclides that are either stable or have half-lives longer than 60 minutes. See list of nuclides for details.


Radioactive isotopes

The existence of isotopes was first suggested in 1913 by the radiochemist Frederick Soddy, based on studies of radioactive decay chains that indicated about 40 different species referred to as radioelements (i.e. radioactive elements) between uranium and lead, although the periodic table only allowed for 11 elements from uranium to lead.[11][12][13]

Several attempts to separate these new radioelements chemically had failed.[14] For example, Soddy had shown in 1910 that mesothorium (later shown to be 228Ra), radium (226Ra, the longest-lived isotope), and thorium X (224Ra) are impossible to separate.[15] Attempts to place the radioelements in the periodic table led Soddy and Kazimierz Fajans independently to propose their radioactive displacement law in 1913, to the effect that alpha decay produced an element two places to the left in the periodic table, whereas beta decay emission produced an element one place to the right.[16] Soddy recognized that emission of an alpha particle followed by two beta particles led to the formation of an element chemically identical to the initial element but with a mass four units lighter and with different radioactive properties.

Soddy proposed that several types of atoms (differing in radioactive properties) could occupy the same place in the table.[13] For example, the alpha-decay of uranium-235 forms thorium-231, whereas the beta decay of actinium-230 forms thorium-230.[14] The term "isotope", Greek for "at the same place",[13] was suggested to Soddy by Margaret Todd, a Scottish physician and family friend, during a conversation in which he explained his ideas to her.[15][17][18][19][20][21] He won the 1921 Nobel Prize in Chemistry in part for his work on isotopes.[22]

Discovery of neon isotopes
In the bottom right corner of J. J. Thomson's photographic plate are the separate impact marks for the two isotopes of neon: neon-20 and neon-22.

In 1914 T. W. Richards found variations between the atomic weight of lead from different mineral sources, attributable to variations in isotopic composition due to different radioactive origins.[14][22]

Stable isotopes

The first evidence for multiple isotopes of a stable (non-radioactive) element was found by J. J. Thomson in 1913 as part of his exploration into the composition of canal rays (positive ions).[23][24] Thomson channeled streams of neon ions through a magnetic and an electric field and measured their deflection by placing a photographic plate in their path. Each stream created a glowing patch on the plate at the point it struck. Thomson observed two separate patches of light on the photographic plate (see image), which suggested two different parabolas of deflection. Thomson eventually concluded that some of the atoms in the neon gas were of higher mass than the rest.

F. W. Aston subsequently discovered multiple stable isotopes for numerous elements using a mass spectrograph. In 1919 Aston studied neon with sufficient resolution to show that the two isotopic masses are very close to the integers 20 and 22, and that neither is equal to the known molar mass (20.2) of neon gas. This is an example of Aston's whole number rule for isotopic masses, which states that large deviations of elemental molar masses from integers are primarily due to the fact that the element is a mixture of isotopes. Aston similarly showed that the molar mass of chlorine (35.45) is a weighted average of the almost integral masses for the two isotopes 35Cl and 37Cl.[25]

Variation in properties between isotopes

Chemical and molecular properties

A neutral atom has the same number of electrons as protons. Thus different isotopes of a given element all have the same number of electrons and share a similar electronic structure. Because the chemical behavior of an atom is largely determined by its electronic structure, different isotopes exhibit nearly identical chemical behavior.

The main exception to this is the kinetic isotope effect: due to their larger masses, heavier isotopes tend to react somewhat more slowly than lighter isotopes of the same element. This is most pronounced by far for protium (1
), deuterium (2
), and tritium (3
), because deuterium has twice the mass of protium and tritium has three times the mass of protium. These mass differences also affect the behavior of their respective chemical bonds, by changing the center of gravity (reduced mass) of the atomic systems. However, for heavier elements the relative mass difference between isotopes is much less, so that the mass-difference effects on chemistry are usually negligible. (Heavy elements also have relatively more neutrons than lighter elements, so the ratio of the nuclear mass to the collective electronic mass is slightly greater.)

Isotopes and half-life
Isotope half-lives. The plot for stable isotopes diverges from the line Z = N as the element number Z becomes larger

Similarly, two molecules that differ only in the isotopes of their atoms (isotopologues) have identical electronic structure, and therefore almost indistinguishable physical and chemical properties (again with deuterium and tritium being the primary exceptions). The vibrational modes of a molecule are determined by its shape and by the masses of its constituent atoms; so different isotopologues have different sets of vibrational modes. Because vibrational modes allow a molecule to absorb photons of corresponding energies, isotopologues have different optical properties in the infrared range.

Nuclear properties and stability

Atomic nuclei consist of protons and neutrons bound together by the residual strong force. Because protons are positively charged, they repel each other. Neutrons, which are electrically neutral, stabilize the nucleus in two ways. Their copresence pushes protons slightly apart, reducing the electrostatic repulsion between the protons, and they exert the attractive nuclear force on each other and on protons. For this reason, one or more neutrons are necessary for two or more protons to bind into a nucleus. As the number of protons increases, so does the ratio of neutrons to protons necessary to ensure a stable nucleus (see graph at right). For example, although the neutron:proton ratio of 3
is 1:2, the neutron:proton ratio of 238
is greater than 3:2. A number of lighter elements have stable nuclides with the ratio 1:1 (Z = N). The nuclide 40
(calcium-40) is observationally the heaviest stable nuclide with the same number of neutrons and protons; (theoretically, the heaviest stable one is sulfur-32). All stable nuclides heavier than calcium-40 contain more neutrons than protons.

Numbers of isotopes per element

Of the 80 elements with a stable isotope, the largest number of stable isotopes observed for any element is ten (for the element tin). No element has nine stable isotopes. Xenon is the only element with eight stable isotopes. Four elements have seven stable isotopes, eight have six stable isotopes, ten have five stable isotopes, nine have four stable isotopes, five have three stable isotopes, 16 have two stable isotopes (counting 180m
as stable), and 26 elements have only a single stable isotope (of these, 19 are so-called mononuclidic elements, having a single primordial stable isotope that dominates and fixes the atomic weight of the natural element to high precision; 3 radioactive mononuclidic elements occur as well).[26] In total, there are 253 nuclides that have not been observed to decay. For the 80 elements that have one or more stable isotopes, the average number of stable isotopes is 253/80 = 3.1625 isotopes per element.

Even and odd nucleon numbers

Even/odd Z, N (Hydrogen-1 included as OE)
p,n EE OO EO OE Total
Stable 147 5 53 48 253
Long-lived 21 4 3 5 33
All primordial 168 9 56 53 286

The proton:neutron ratio is not the only factor affecting nuclear stability. It depends also on evenness or oddness of its atomic number Z, neutron number N and, consequently, of their sum, the mass number A. Oddness of both Z and N tends to lower the nuclear binding energy, making odd nuclei, generally, less stable. This remarkable difference of nuclear binding energy between neighbouring nuclei, especially of odd-A isobars, has important consequences: unstable isotopes with a nonoptimal number of neutrons or protons decay by beta decay (including positron decay), electron capture or other exotic means, such as spontaneous fission and cluster decay.

The majority of stable nuclides are even-proton-even-neutron, where all numbers Z, N, and A are even. The odd-A stable nuclides are divided (roughly evenly) into odd-proton-even-neutron, and even-proton-odd-neutron nuclides. Odd-proton-odd-neutron nuclei are the least common.

Even atomic number

The 148 even-proton, even-neutron (EE) nuclides comprise ~ 58% of all stable nuclides and all have spin 0 because of pairing. There are also 22 primordial long-lived even-even nuclides. As a result, each of the 41 even-numbered elements from 2 to 82 has at least one stable isotope, and most of these elements have several primordial isotopes. Half of these even-numbered elements have six or more stable isotopes. The extreme stability of helium-4 due to a double pairing of 2 protons and 2 neutrons prevents any nuclides containing five or eight nucleons from existing for long enough to serve as platforms for the buildup of heavier elements via nuclear fusion in stars (see triple alpha process).

Even-odd long-lived
Decay Half-life
beta 7.7×1015 a
alpha 1.06×1011 a
alpha 7.04×108 a

These 53 stable nuclides have an even number of protons and an odd number of neutrons. They are a minority in comparison to the even-even isotopes, which are about 3 times as numerous. Among the 41 even-Z elements that have a stable nuclide, only two elements (argon and cerium) have no even-odd stable nuclides. One element (tin) has three. There are 24 elements that have one even-odd nuclide and 13 that have two odd-even nuclides. Of 35 primordial radionuclides there exist four even-odd nuclides (see table at right), including the fissile 235
. Because of their odd neutron numbers, the even-odd nuclides tend to have large neutron capture cross sections, due to the energy that results from neutron-pairing effects. These stable even-proton odd-neutron nuclides tend to be uncommon by abundance in nature, generally because, to form and enter into primordial abundance, they must have escaped capturing neutrons to form yet other stable even-even isotopes, during both the s-process and r-process of neutron capture, during nucleosynthesis in stars. For this reason, only 195
and 9
are the most naturally abundant isotopes of their element.

Odd atomic number

Forty-eight stable odd-proton-even-neutron nuclides, stabilized by their paired neutrons, form most of the stable isotopes of the odd-numbered elements; the very few odd-proton-odd-neutron nuclides comprise the others. There are 41 odd-numbered elements with Z = 1 through 81, of which 39 have stable isotopes (the elements technetium (
) and promethium (
) have no stable isotopes). Of these 39 odd Z elements, 30 elements (including hydrogen-1 where 0 neutrons is even) have one stable odd-even isotope, and nine elements: chlorine (
), potassium (
), copper (
), gallium (
), bromine (
), silver (
), antimony (
), iridium (
), and thallium (
), have two odd-even stable isotopes each. This makes a total 30 + 2(9) = 48 stable odd-even isotopes.

There are also five primordial long-lived radioactive odd-even isotopes, 87
, 115
, 187
, 151
, and 209
. The last two were only recently found to decay, with half-lives greater than 1018 years.

Only five stable nuclides contain both an odd number of protons and an odd number of neutrons. The first four "odd-odd" nuclides occur in low mass nuclides, for which changing a proton to a neutron or vice versa would lead to a very lopsided proton-neutron ratio (2
, 6
, 10
, and 14
; spins 1, 1, 3, 1). The only other entirely "stable" odd-odd nuclide, 180m
(spin 9), is thought to be the rarest of the 253 stable isotopes, and is the only primordial nuclear isomer, which has not yet been observed to decay despite experimental attempts.[27]

Many odd-odd radionuclides (like tantalum-180) with comparatively short half lives are known. Usually, they beta-decay to their nearby even-even isobars that have paired protons and paired neutrons. Of the nine primordial odd-odd nuclides (five stable and four radioactive with long half lives), only 14
is the most common isotope of a common element. This is the case because it is a part of the CNO cycle. The nuclides 6
and 10
are minority isotopes of elements that are themselves rare compared to other light elements, whereas the other six isotopes make up only a tiny percentage of the natural abundance of their elements.

Odd neutron number

Neutron number parity (1H with 0 neutrons included as even)
N Even Odd
Stable 195 58
Long-lived 26 7
All primordial 221 65

Actinides with odd neutron number are generally fissile (with thermal neutrons), whereas those with even neutron number are generally not, though they are fissionable with fast neutrons. All observationally stable odd-odd nuclides have nonzero integer spin. This is because the single unpaired neutron and unpaired proton have a larger nuclear force attraction to each other if their spins are aligned (producing a total spin of at least 1 unit), instead of anti-aligned. See deuterium for the simplest case of this nuclear behavior.

Only 195
, 9
and 14
have odd neutron number and are the most naturally abundant isotope of their element.

Occurrence in nature

Elements are composed of one nuclide (mononuclidic elements) or of more naturally occurring isotopes. The unstable (radioactive) isotopes are either primordial or postprimordial. Primordial isotopes were a product of stellar nucleosynthesis or another type of nucleosynthesis such as cosmic ray spallation, and have persisted down to the present because their rate of decay is so slow (e.g. uranium-238 and potassium-40). Post-primordial isotopes were created by cosmic ray bombardment as cosmogenic nuclides (e.g., tritium, carbon-14), or by the decay of a radioactive primordial isotope to a radioactive radiogenic nuclide daughter (e.g. uranium to radium). A few isotopes are naturally synthesized as nucleogenic nuclides, by some other natural nuclear reaction, such as when neutrons from natural nuclear fission are absorbed by another atom.

As discussed above, only 80 elements have any stable isotopes, and 26 of these have only one stable isotope. Thus, about two-thirds of stable elements occur naturally on Earth in multiple stable isotopes, with the largest number of stable isotopes for an element being ten, for tin (
). There are about 94 elements found naturally on Earth (up to plutonium inclusive), though some are detected only in very tiny amounts, such as plutonium-244. Scientists estimate that the elements that occur naturally on Earth (some only as radioisotopes) occur as 339 isotopes (nuclides) in total.[28] Only 253 of these naturally occurring nuclides are stable in the sense of never having been observed to decay as of the present time. An additional 35 primordial nuclides (to a total of 289 primordial nuclides), are radioactive with known half-lives, but have half-lives longer than 80 million years, allowing them to exist from the beginning of the Solar System. See list of nuclides for details.

All the known stable nuclides occur naturally on Earth; the other naturally occurring nuclides are radioactive but occur on Earth due to their relatively long half-lives, or else due to other means of ongoing natural production. These include the afore-mentioned cosmogenic nuclides, the nucleogenic nuclides, and any radiogenic nuclides formed by ongoing decay of a primordial radioactive nuclide, such as radon and radium from uranium.

An additional ~3000 radioactive nuclides not found in nature have been created in nuclear reactors and in particle accelerators. Many short-lived nuclides not found naturally on Earth have also been observed by spectroscopic analysis, being naturally created in stars or supernovae. An example is aluminium-26, which is not naturally found on Earth, but is found in abundance on an astronomical scale.

The tabulated atomic masses of elements are averages that account for the presence of multiple isotopes with different masses. Before the discovery of isotopes, empirically determined noninteger values of atomic mass confounded scientists. For example, a sample of chlorine contains 75.8% chlorine-35 and 24.2% chlorine-37, giving an average atomic mass of 35.5 atomic mass units.

According to generally accepted cosmology theory, only isotopes of hydrogen and helium, traces of some isotopes of lithium and beryllium, and perhaps some boron, were created at the Big Bang, while all other nuclides were synthesized later, in stars and supernovae, and in interactions between energetic particles such as cosmic rays, and previously produced nuclides. (See nucleosynthesis for details of the various processes thought responsible for isotope production.) The respective abundances of isotopes on Earth result from the quantities formed by these processes, their spread through the galaxy, and the rates of decay for isotopes that are unstable. After the initial coalescence of the Solar System, isotopes were redistributed according to mass, and the isotopic composition of elements varies slightly from planet to planet. This sometimes makes it possible to trace the origin of meteorites.

Atomic mass of isotopes

The atomic mass (mr) of an isotope (nuclide) is determined mainly by its mass number (i.e. number of nucleons in its nucleus). Small corrections are due to the binding energy of the nucleus (see mass defect), the slight difference in mass between proton and neutron, and the mass of the electrons associated with the atom, the latter because the electron:nucleon ratio differs among isotopes.

The mass number is a dimensionless quantity. The atomic mass, on the other hand, is measured using the atomic mass unit based on the mass of the carbon-12 atom. It is denoted with symbols "u" (for unified atomic mass unit) or "Da" (for dalton).

The atomic masses of naturally occurring isotopes of an element determine the atomic mass of the element. When the element contains N isotopes, the expression below is applied for the average atomic mass :

where m1, m2, …, mN are the atomic masses of each individual isotope, and x1, …, xN are the relative abundances of these isotopes.

Applications of isotopes

Purification of isotopes

Several applications exist that capitalize on properties of the various isotopes of a given element. Isotope separation is a significant technological challenge, particularly with heavy elements such as uranium or plutonium. Lighter elements such as lithium, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen are commonly separated by gas diffusion of their compounds such as CO and NO. The separation of hydrogen and deuterium is unusual because it is based on chemical rather than physical properties, for example in the Girdler sulfide process. Uranium isotopes have been separated in bulk by gas diffusion, gas centrifugation, laser ionization separation, and (in the Manhattan Project) by a type of production mass spectrometry.

Use of chemical and biological properties

  • Isotope analysis is the determination of isotopic signature, the relative abundances of isotopes of a given element in a particular sample. For biogenic substances in particular, significant variations of isotopes of C, N and O can occur. Analysis of such variations has a wide range of applications, such as the detection of adulteration in food products[29] or the geographic origins of products using isoscapes. The identification of certain meteorites as having originated on Mars is based in part upon the isotopic signature of trace gases contained in them.[30]
  • Isotopic substitution can be used to determine the mechanism of a chemical reaction via the kinetic isotope effect.
  • Another common application is isotopic labeling, the use of unusual isotopes as tracers or markers in chemical reactions. Normally, atoms of a given element are indistinguishable from each other. However, by using isotopes of different masses, even different nonradioactive stable isotopes can be distinguished by mass spectrometry or infrared spectroscopy. For example, in 'stable isotope labeling with amino acids in cell culture (SILAC)' stable isotopes are used to quantify proteins. If radioactive isotopes are used, they can be detected by the radiation they emit (this is called radioisotopic labeling).
  • Isotopes are commonly used to determine the concentration of various elements or substances using the isotope dilution method, whereby known amounts of isotopically-substituted compounds are mixed with the samples and the isotopic signatures of the resulting mixtures are determined with mass spectrometry.

Use of nuclear properties

  • A technique similar to radioisotopic labeling is radiometric dating: using the known half-life of an unstable element, one can calculate the amount of time that has elapsed since a known concentration of isotope existed. The most widely known example is radiocarbon dating used to determine the age of carbonaceous materials.
  • Several forms of spectroscopy rely on the unique nuclear properties of specific isotopes, both radioactive and stable. For example, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy can be used only for isotopes with a nonzero nuclear spin. The most common nuclides used with NMR spectroscopy are 1H, 2D, 15N, 13C, and 31P.
  • Mössbauer spectroscopy also relies on the nuclear transitions of specific isotopes, such as 57Fe.
  • Radionuclides also have important uses. Nuclear power and nuclear weapons development require relatively large quantities of specific isotopes. Nuclear medicine and radiation oncology utilize radioisotopes respectively for medical diagnosis and treatment.

See also


  • Isotopes are nuclides having the same number of protons; compare:
    • Isotones are nuclides having the same number of neutrons.
    • Isobars are nuclides having the same mass number, i.e. sum of protons plus neutrons.
    • Nuclear isomers are different excited states of the same type of nucleus. A transition from one isomer to another is accompanied by emission or absorption of a gamma ray, or the process of internal conversion. Isomers are by definition both isotopic and isobaric. (Not to be confused with chemical isomers.)
    • Isodiaphers are nuclides having the same neutron excess, i.e. number of neutrons minus number of protons.
  • Bainbridge mass spectrometer


  1. ^ "Isotope". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  2. ^ Soddy, Frederick (12 December 1922). "The origins of the conceptions of isotopes" (PDF). p. 393. Retrieved 9 January 2019. Thus the chemically identical elements - or isotopes, as I called them for the first time in this letter to Nature, because they occupy the same place in the Periodic Table ...
  3. ^ Soddy, Frederick (1913). "Intra-atomic charge". Nature. 92 (2301): 399–400. Bibcode:1913Natur..92..399S. doi:10.1038/092399c0.
  4. ^ IUPAP Red Book
  5. ^ IUPAC Gold Book
  6. ^ IUPAC Gold Book
  7. ^ IUPAC (Connelly, N. G.; Damhus, T.; Hartshorn, R. M.; and Hutton, A. T.), Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry – IUPAC Recommendations 2005, The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2005; IUPAC (McCleverty, J. A.; and Connelly, N. G.), Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry II. Recommendations 2000, The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2001; IUPAC (Leigh, G. J.), Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry (recommendations 1990), Blackwell Science, 1990; IUPAC, Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry, Second Edition, 1970; probably in the 1958 first edition as well
  8. ^ This notation seems to have been introduced in the second half of the 1930s. Before that, various notations were used, such as Ne(22) for neon-22 (1934), Ne22 for neon-22 (1935), or even Pb210 for lead-210 (1933).
  9. ^ a b "Radioactives Missing From The Earth".
  10. ^ "NuDat 2 Description". Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  11. ^ Choppin, G.; Liljenzin, J. O. and Rydberg, J. (1995) Radiochemistry and Nuclear Chemistry (2nd ed.) Butterworth-Heinemann, pp. 3–5
  12. ^ Others had also suggested the possibility of isotopes; for example:
    • Strömholm, Daniel and Svedberg, Theodor (1909) "Untersuchungen über die Chemie der radioactiven Grundstoffe II." (Investigations into the chemistry of the radioactive elements, part 2), Zeitschrift für anorganischen Chemie, 63: 197–206; see especially page 206.
    • Alexander Thomas Cameron, Radiochemistry (London, England: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1910), p. 141. (Cameron also anticipated the displacement law.)
  13. ^ a b c Ley, Willy (October 1966). "The Delayed Discovery". For Your Information. Galaxy Science Fiction. pp. 116–127.
  14. ^ a b c Scerri, Eric R. (2007) The Periodic Table Oxford University Press, pp. 176–179 ISBN 0-19-530573-6
  15. ^ a b Nagel, Miriam C. (1982). "Frederick Soddy: From Alchemy to Isotopes". Journal of Chemical Education. 59 (9): 739–740. Bibcode:1982JChEd..59..739N. doi:10.1021/ed059p739.
  16. ^ See:
    • Kasimir Fajans (1913) "Über eine Beziehung zwischen der Art einer radioaktiven Umwandlung und dem elektrochemischen Verhalten der betreffenden Radioelemente" (On a relation between the type of radioactive transformation and the electrochemical behavior of the relevant radioactive elements), Physikalische Zeitschrift, 14: 131–136.
    • Soddy announced his "displacement law" in: Soddy, Frederick (1913). "The Radio-Elements and the Periodic Law". Nature. 91 (2264): 57–58. Bibcode:1913Natur..91...57S. doi:10.1038/091057a0..
    • Soddy elaborated his displacement law in: Soddy, Frederick (1913) "Radioactivity," Chemical Society Annual Report, 10: 262–288.
    • Alexander Smith Russell (1888–1972) also published a displacement law: Russell, Alexander S. (1913) "The periodic system and the radio-elements," Chemical News and Journal of Industrial Science, 107: 49–52.
  17. ^ Soddy first used the word "isotope" in: Soddy, Frederick (1913). "Intra-atomic charge". Nature. 92 (2301): 399–400. Bibcode:1913Natur..92..399S. doi:10.1038/092399c0.
  18. ^ Fleck, Alexander (1957). "Frederick Soddy". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 3: 203–216. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1957.0014. p. 208: Up to 1913 we used the phrase 'radio elements chemically non-separable' and at that time the word isotope was suggested in a drawing-room discussion with Dr. Margaret Todd in the home of Soddy's father-in-law, Sir George Beilby.
  19. ^ Budzikiewicz H, Grigsby RD (2006). "Mass spectrometry and isotopes: a century of research and discussion". Mass Spectrometry Reviews. 25 (1): 146–57. Bibcode:2006MSRv...25..146B. doi:10.1002/mas.20061. PMID 16134128.
  20. ^ Scerri, Eric R. (2007) The Periodic Table, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-530573-6, Ch. 6, note 44 (p. 312) citing Alexander Fleck, described as a former student of Soddy's.
  21. ^ In his 1893 book, William T. Preyer also used the word "isotope" to denote similarities among elements. From p. 9 of William T. Preyer, Das genetische System der chemischen Elemente [The genetic system of the chemical elements] (Berlin, Germany: R. Friedländer & Sohn, 1893): "Die ersteren habe ich der Kürze wegen isotope Elemente genannt, weil sie in jedem der sieben Stämmme der gleichen Ort, nämlich dieselbe Stuffe, einnehmen." (For the sake of brevity, I have named the former "isotopic" elements, because they occupy the same place in each of the seven families [i.e., columns of the periodic table], namely the same step [i.e., row of the periodic table].)
  22. ^ a b The origins of the conceptions of isotopes Frederick Soddy, Nobel prize lecture
  23. ^ Thomson, J. J. (1912). "XIX. Further experiments on positive rays". Philosophical Magazine. Series 6. 24 (140): 209–253. doi:10.1080/14786440808637325.
  24. ^ Thomson, J. J. (1910). "LXXXIII. Rays of positive electricity". Philosophical Magazine. Series 6. 20 (118): 752–767. doi:10.1080/14786441008636962.
  25. ^ Mass spectra and isotopes Francis W. Aston, Nobel prize lecture 1922
  26. ^ Sonzogni, Alejandro (2008). "Interactive Chart of Nuclides". National Nuclear Data Center: Brookhaven National Laboratory. Retrieved 2013-05-03.
  27. ^ Hult, Mikael; Wieslander, J. S.; Marissens, Gerd; Gasparro, Joël; Wätjen, Uwe; Misiaszek, Marcin (2009). "Search for the radioactivity of 180mTa using an underground HPGe sandwich spectrometer". Applied Radiation and Isotopes. 67 (5): 918–21. doi:10.1016/j.apradiso.2009.01.057. PMID 19246206.
  28. ^ "Radioactives Missing From The Earth". Retrieved 2012-06-16.
  29. ^ Jamin, Eric; Guérin, Régis; Rétif, Mélinda; Lees, Michèle; Martin, Gérard J. (2003). "Improved Detection of Added Water in Orange Juice by Simultaneous Determination of the Oxygen-18/Oxygen-16 Isotope Ratios of Water and Ethanol Derived from Sugars". J. Agric. Food Chem. 51 (18): 5202–6. doi:10.1021/jf030167m. PMID 12926859.
  30. ^ Treiman, A. H.; Gleason, J. D.; Bogard, D. D. (2000). "The SNC meteorites are from Mars". Planet. Space Sci. 48 (12–14): 1213. Bibcode:2000P&SS...48.1213T. doi:10.1016/S0032-0633(00)00105-7.

External links


Cobalt-60 (60Co), is a synthetic radioactive isotope of cobalt with a half-life of 5.2713 years. It is produced artificially in nuclear reactors. Deliberate industrial production depends on neutron activation of bulk samples of the monoisotopic and mononuclidic cobalt isotope 59Co. Measurable quantities are also produced as a by-product of typical nuclear power plant operation and may be detected externally when leaks occur. In the latter case (in the absence of added cobalt) the incidentally produced 60Co is largely the result of multiple stages of neutron activation of iron isotopes in the reactor's steel structures via the creation of 59Co precursor. The simplest case of the latter would result from the activation of 58Fe. 60Co decays by beta decay to the stable isotope nickel-60 (60Ni). The activated nickel nucleus emits two gamma rays with energies of 1.17 and 1.33 MeV, hence the overall nuclear equation of the reaction is 5927Co + n → 6027Co → 6028Ni + e− + νe + gamma rays.

Decay chain

In nuclear science, the decay chain refers to a series of radioactive decays of different radioactive decay products as a sequential series of transformations. It is also known as a "radioactive cascade". Most radioisotopes do not decay directly to a stable state, but rather undergo a series of decays until eventually a stable isotope is reached.

Decay stages are referred to by their relationship to previous or subsequent stages. A parent isotope is one that undergoes decay to form a daughter isotope. One example of this is uranium (atomic number 92) decaying into thorium (atomic number 90). The daughter isotope may be stable or it may decay to form a daughter isotope of its own. The daughter of a daughter isotope is sometimes called a granddaughter isotope.

The time it takes for a single parent atom to decay to an atom of its daughter isotope can vary widely, not only between different parent-daughter pairs, but also randomly between identical pairings of parent and daughter isotopes. The decay of each single atom occurs spontaneously, and the decay of an initial population of identical atoms over time t, follows a decaying exponential distribution, e−λt, where λ is called a decay constant. One of the properties of an isotope is its half-life, the time by which half of an initial number of identical parent radioisotopes have decayed to their daughters, which is inversely related to λ. Half-lives have been determined in laboratories for many radioisotopes (or radionuclides). These can range from nearly instantaneous to as much as 1019 years or more.

The intermediate stages each emit the same amount of radioactivity as the original radioisotope (i.e. there is a one-to-one relationship between the numbers of decays in successive stages) but each stage releases a different quantity of energy. If and when equilibrium is achieved, each successive daughter isotope is present in direct proportion to its half-life; but since its activity is inversely proportional to its half-life, each nuclide in the decay chain finally contributes as many individual transformations as the head of the chain, though not the same energy. For example, uranium-238 is weakly radioactive, but pitchblende, a uranium ore, is 13 times more radioactive than the pure uranium metal because of the radium and other daughter isotopes it contains. Not only are unstable radium isotopes significant radioactivity emitters, but as the next stage in the decay chain they also generate radon, a heavy, inert, naturally occurring radioactive gas. Rock containing thorium and/or uranium (such as some granites) emits radon gas that can accumulate in enclosed places such as basements or underground mines.

Decay product

In nuclear physics, a decay product (also known as a daughter product, daughter isotope, radio-daughter, or daughter nuclide) is the remaining nuclide left over from radioactive decay. Radioactive decay often proceeds via a sequence of steps (decay chain). For example, 238U decays to 234Th which decays to 234mPa which decays, and so on, to 206Pb (which is stable):

In this example:

These might also be referred to as the daughter products of 238U.

Decay products are important in understanding radioactive decay and the management of radioactive waste.

For elements above lead in atomic number, the decay chain typically ends with an isotope of lead or bismuth. Bismuth itself decays to thallium, but the decay is so slow as to be practically negligible.

In many cases, individual members of the decay chain are as radioactive as the parent, but far smaller in volume/mass. Thus, although uranium is not dangerously radioactive when pure, some pieces of naturally occurring pitchblende are quite dangerous owing to their radium-226 content, which is soluble and not a ceramic like the parent. Similarly, thorium gas mantles are very slightly radioactive when new, but become more radioactive after only a few months of storage as the daughters of 232Th build up.

Although it cannot be predicted whether any given atom of a radioactive substance will decay at any given time, the decay products of a radioactive substance are extremely predictable. Because of this, decay products are important to scientists in many fields who need to know the quantity or type of the parent product. Such studies are done to measure pollution levels (in and around nuclear facilities) and for other matters.

Enriched uranium

Enriched uranium is a type of uranium in which the percent composition of uranium-235 has been increased through the process of isotope separation. Natural uranium is 99.284% 238U isotope, with 235U only constituting about 0.711% of its mass. 235U is the only nuclide existing in nature (in any appreciable amount) that is fissile with thermal neutrons.Enriched uranium is a critical component for both civil nuclear power generation and military nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency attempts to monitor and control enriched uranium supplies and processes in its efforts to ensure nuclear power generation safety and curb nuclear weapons proliferation.

During the Manhattan Project enriched uranium was given the codename oralloy, a shortened version of Oak Ridge alloy, after the location of the plants where the uranium was enriched. The term oralloy is still occasionally used to refer to enriched uranium. There are about 2,000 tonnes (t, Mg) of highly enriched uranium in the world, produced mostly for nuclear power, nuclear weapons, naval propulsion, and smaller quantities for research reactors.

The 238U remaining after enrichment is known as depleted uranium (DU), and is considerably less radioactive than even natural uranium, though still very dense and extremely hazardous in granulated form – such granules are a natural by-product of the shearing action that makes it useful for armor-penetrating weapons and radiation shielding. At present, 95 percent of the world's stocks of depleted uranium remain in secure storage.

Fissile material

In nuclear engineering, fissile material is material capable of sustaining a nuclear fission chain reaction. By definition, fissile material can sustain a chain reaction with neutrons of thermal energy. The predominant neutron energy may be typified by either slow neutrons (i.e., a thermal system) or fast neutrons. Fissile material can be used to fuel thermal-neutron reactors, fast-neutron reactors and nuclear explosives.

Isotope analysis

Isotope analysis is the identification of isotopic signature, the abundance of certain stable isotopes and chemical elements within organic and inorganic compounds. Isotopic analysis can be used to understand the flow of energy through a food web, to reconstruct past environmental and climatic conditions, to investigate human and animal diets in the past, for food authentification, and a variety of other physical, geological, palaeontological and chemical processes. Stable isotope ratios are measured using mass spectrometry, which separates the different isotopes of an element on the basis of their mass-to-charge ratio.

Isotope separation

Isotope separation is the process of concentrating specific isotopes of a chemical element by removing other isotopes. The use of the nuclides produced is various. The largest variety is used in research (e.g. in chemistry where atoms of "marker" nuclide are used to figure out reaction mechanisms). By tonnage, separating natural uranium into enriched uranium and depleted uranium is the largest application. In the following text, mainly the uranium enrichment is considered. This process is a crucial one in the manufacture of uranium fuel for nuclear power stations, and is also required for the creation of uranium based nuclear weapons. Plutonium-based weapons use plutonium produced in a nuclear reactor, which must be operated in such a way as to produce plutonium already of suitable isotopic mix or grade.

While different chemical elements can be purified through chemical processes, isotopes of the same element have nearly identical chemical properties, which makes this type of separation impractical, except for separation of deuterium.

Isotopes of carbon

Carbon (6C) has 15 known isotopes, from 8C to 22C, of which 12C and 13C are stable. The longest-lived radioisotope is 14C, with a half-life of 5,700 years. This is also the only carbon radioisotope found in nature—trace quantities are formed cosmogenically by the reaction 14N + 1n → 14C + 1H. The most stable artificial radioisotope is 11C, which has a half-life of 20.334 minutes. All other radioisotopes have half-lives under 20 seconds, most less than 200 milliseconds. The least stable isotope is 8C, with a half-life of 2.0 x 10−21 s.

Isotopes of hydrogen

Hydrogen (1H) has three naturally occurring isotopes, sometimes denoted 1H, 2H, and 3H. The first two of these are stable, while 3H has a half-life of 12.32 years. There are also heavier isotopes, which are all synthetic and have a half-life less than one zeptosecond (10−21 second). Of these, 5H is the most stable, and 7H is the least.Hydrogen is the only element whose isotopes have different names in common use today: the 2H (or hydrogen-2) isotope is deuterium and the 3H (or hydrogen-3) isotope is tritium. The symbols D and T are sometimes used for deuterium and tritium. The IUPAC accepts the D and T symbols, but recommends instead using standard isotopic symbols (2H and 3H) to avoid confusion in the alphabetic sorting of chemical formulas. The ordinary isotope of hydrogen, with no neutrons, is sometimes called "protium". (During the early study of radioactivity, some other heavy radioactive isotopes were given names, but such names are rarely used today.)

Isotopes of oxygen

There are three known stable isotopes of oxygen (8O): 16O, 17O, and 18O.

Radioactive isotopes ranging from 11O to 26O have also been characterized, all short-lived. The longest-lived radioisotope is 15O with a half-life of 122.24 seconds, while the shortest-lived isotope is 12O with a half-life of 580(30)×10−24 seconds (the half-life of the unbound 11O was not measured).

Isotopes of uranium

Uranium (92U) is a naturally occurring radioactive element that has no stable isotopes but two primordial isotopes (uranium-238 and uranium-235) that have long half-lives and are found in appreciable quantity in the Earth's crust, along with the decay product uranium-234. The standard atomic weight of natural uranium is 238.02891(3). Other isotopes such as uranium-232 have been produced in breeder reactors.

Naturally occurring uranium is composed of three major isotopes, uranium-238 (99.2739–99.2752% natural abundance), uranium-235 (0.7198–0.7202%), and uranium-234 (0.0050–0.0059%). All three isotopes are radioactive, creating radioisotopes, with the most abundant and stable being uranium-238 with a half-life of 4.4683×109 years (close to the age of the Earth).

Uranium-238 is an α emitter, decaying through the 18-member uranium series into lead-206. The decay series of uranium-235 (historically called actino-uranium) has 15 members that ends in lead-207. The constant rates of decay in these series makes comparison of the ratios of parent to daughter elements useful in radiometric dating. Uranium-233 is made from thorium-232 by neutron bombardment.

The isotope uranium-235 is important for both nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons because it is the only isotope existing in nature to any appreciable extent that is fissile, that is, can be broken apart by thermal neutrons. The isotope uranium-238 is also important because it absorbs neutrons to produce a radioactive isotope that subsequently decays to the isotope plutonium-239, which also is fissile.

Isotopic labeling

Isotopic labeling (or isotopic labelling) is a technique used to track the passage of an isotope (an atom with a detectable variation in neutron count) through a reaction, metabolic pathway, or cell. The reactant is 'labeled' by replacing specific atoms by their isotope. The reactant is then allowed to undergo the reaction. The position of the isotopes in the products is measured to determine the sequence the isotopic atom followed in the reaction or the cell's metabolic pathway. The nuclides used in isotopic labeling may be stable nuclides or radionuclides. In the latter case, the labeling is called radiolabeling.

In isotopic labeling, there are multiple ways to detect the presence of labeling isotopes; through their mass, vibrational mode, or radioactive decay. Mass spectrometry detects the difference in an isotope's mass, while infrared spectroscopy detects the difference in the isotope's vibrational modes. Nuclear magnetic resonance detects atoms with different gyromagnetic ratios. The radioactive decay can be detected through an ionization chamber or autoradiographs of gels.

An example of the use of isotopic labeling is the study of phenol (C6H5OH) in water by replacing common hydrogen (protium) with deuterium (deuterium labeling). Upon adding phenol to deuterated water (water containing D2O in addition to the usual H2O), the substitution of deuterium for the hydrogen is observed in phenol's hydroxyl group (resulting in C6H5OD), indicating that phenol readily undergoes hydrogen-exchange reactions with water. Only the hydroxyl group is affected, indicating that the other 5 hydrogen atoms do not participate in the exchange reactions.

Natural abundance

In physics, natural abundance (NA) refers to the abundance of isotopes of a chemical element as naturally found on a planet. The relative atomic mass (a weighted average, weighted by mole-fraction abundance figures) of these isotopes is the atomic weight listed for the element in the periodic table. The abundance of an isotope varies from planet to planet, and even from place to place on the Earth, but remains relatively constant in time (on a short-term scale).

As an example, uranium has three naturally occurring isotopes: 238U, 235U and 234U. Their respective natural mole-fraction abundances are 99.2739–99.2752%, 0.7198–0.7202%, and 0.0050–0.0059%. For example, if 100,000 uranium atoms were analyzed, one would expect to find approximately 99,274 238U atoms, approximately 720 235U atoms, and very few (most likely 5 or 6) 234U atoms. This is because 238U is much more stable than 235U or 234U, as the half-life of each isotope reveals: 4.468 × 109 years for 238U compared with 7.038 × 108 years for 235U and 245,500 years for 234U.

Exactly because the different uranium isotopes have different half-lives, when the Earth was younger, the isotopic composition of uranium was different. As an example, 1.7×109 years ago the NA of 235U was 3.1% compared with today's 0.7%, and for that reason a natural nuclear fission reactor was able to form, something that cannot happen today.

However, the natural abundance of a given isotope is also affected by the probability of its creation in nucleosynthesis (as in the case of samarium; radioactive 147Sm and 148Sm are much more abundant than stable 144Sm) and by production of a given isotope as a daughter of natural radioactive isotopes (as in the case of radiogenic isotopes of lead).

Radiometric dating

Radiometric dating, radioactive dating or radioisotope dating is a technique used to date materials such as rocks or carbon, in which trace radioactive impurities were selectively incorporated when they were formed. The method compares the abundance of a naturally occurring radioactive isotope within the material to the abundance of its decay products, which form at a known constant rate of decay. The use of radiometric dating was first published in 1907 by Bertram Boltwood and is now the principal source of information about the absolute age of rocks and other geological features, including the age of fossilized life forms or the age of the Earth itself, and can also be used to date a wide range of natural and man-made materials.

Together with stratigraphic principles, radiometric dating methods are used in geochronology to establish the geologic time scale. Among the best-known techniques are radiocarbon dating, potassium–argon dating and uranium–lead dating. By allowing the establishment of geological timescales, it provides a significant source of information about the ages of fossils and the deduced rates of evolutionary change. Radiometric dating is also used to date archaeological materials, including ancient artifacts.

Different methods of radiometric dating vary in the timescale over which they are accurate and the materials to which they can be applied.


A radionuclide (radioactive nuclide, radioisotope or radioactive isotope) is an atom that has excess nuclear energy, making it unstable. This excess energy can be used in one of three ways: emitted from the nucleus as gamma radiation; transferred to one of its electrons to release it as a conversion electron; or used to create and emit a new particle (alpha particle or beta particle) from the nucleus. During those processes, the radionuclide is said to undergo radioactive decay. These emissions are considered ionizing radiation because they are powerful enough to liberate an electron from another atom. The radioactive decay can produce a stable nuclide or will sometimes produce a new unstable radionuclide which may undergo further decay. Radioactive decay is a random process at the level of single atoms: it is impossible to predict when one particular atom will decay. However, for a collection of atoms of a single element the decay rate, and thus the half-life (t1/2) for that collection can be calculated from their measured decay constants. The range of the half-lives of radioactive atoms have no known limits and span a time range of over 55 orders of magnitude.

Radionuclides occur naturally or are artificially produced in nuclear reactors, cyclotrons, particle accelerators or radionuclide generators. There are about 730 radionuclides with half-lives longer than 60 minutes (see list of nuclides). Thirty-two of those are primordial radionuclides that were created before the earth was formed. At least another 60 radionuclides are detectable in nature, either as daughters of primordial radionuclides or as radionuclides produced through natural production on Earth by cosmic radiation. More than 2400 radionuclides have half-lives less than 60 minutes. Most of those are only produced artificially, and have very short half-lives. For comparison, there are about 253 stable nuclides. (In theory, only 146 of them are stable, and the other 107 are believed to decay (alpha decay or beta decay or double beta decay or electron capture or double electron capture))

All chemical elements can exist as radionuclides. Even the lightest element, hydrogen, has a well-known radionuclide, tritium. Elements heavier than lead, and the elements technetium and promethium, exist only as radionuclides. (In theory, elements heavier than dysprosium exist only as radionuclides, but the half-life for some such elements (e.g. gold and platinum) are too long to found)

Unplanned exposure to radionuclides generally has a harmful effect on living organisms including humans, although low levels of exposure occur naturally without harm. The degree of harm will depend on the nature and extent of the radiation produced, the amount and nature of exposure (close contact, inhalation or ingestion), and the biochemical properties of the element; with increased risk of cancer the most usual consequence. However, radionuclides with suitable properties are used in nuclear medicine for both diagnosis and treatment. An imaging tracer made with radionuclides is called a radioactive tracer. A pharmaceutical drug made with radionuclides is called a radiopharmaceutical.

Stable isotope ratio

The term stable isotope has a meaning similar to stable nuclide, but is preferably used when speaking of nuclides of a specific element. Hence, the plural form stable isotopes usually refers to isotopes of the same element. The relative abundance of such stable isotopes can be measured experimentally (isotope analysis), yielding an isotope ratio that can be used as a research tool. Theoretically, such stable isotopes could include the radiogenic daughter products of radioactive decay, used in radiometric dating. However, the expression stable-isotope ratio is preferably used to refer to isotopes whose relative abundances are affected by isotope fractionation in nature. This field is termed stable isotope geochemistry.

Symbol (chemistry)

In relation to the chemical elements, a symbol is a code for a chemical element. Symbols for chemical elements normally consist of one or two letters from the Latin alphabet and are written with the first letter capitalised. (Many functional groups have their own chemical symbol, e.g. Ph for the phenyl group, and Me for the methyl group.)

Earlier symbols for chemical elements stem from classical Latin and Greek vocabulary. For some elements, this is because the material was known in ancient times, while for others, the name is a more recent invention. For example, Pb is the symbol for lead (plumbum in Latin); Hg is the symbol for mercury (hydrargyrum in Greek); and He is the symbol for helium (a new Latin name) because helium was not known in ancient Roman times. Some symbols come from other sources, like W for tungsten (Wolfram in German) which was not known in Roman times.

A 3-letter temporary symbol may be assigned to a newly synthesized (or not-yet synthesized) element. For example, "Uno" was the temporary symbol for hassium (element 108) which had the temporary name of unniloctium, based on its atomic number being 8 greater than 100. There are also some historical symbols that are no longer officially used.

In addition to the letter(s) for the element itself, additional details may be added to the symbol as superscripts or subscripts a particular isotope, ionization or oxidation state, or other atomic detail. A few isotopes have their own specific symbols rather than just an isotopic detail added to their element symbol.

Attached subscripts or superscripts specifying a nuclide or molecule have the following meanings and positions:

The nucleon number (mass number) is shown in the left superscript position (e.g., 14N). This number defines the specific isotope. Various letters, such as "m" and "f" may also be used here to indicate a nuclear isomer (e.g., 99mTc). Alternately, the number here can represent a specific spin state (e.g., 1O2). These details can be omitted if not relevant in a certain context.

The proton number (atomic number) may be indicated in the left subscript position (e.g., 64Gd). The atomic number is redundant to the chemical element, but is sometimes used to emphasize the change of numbers of nucleons in a nuclear reaction.

If necessary, a state of ionization or an excited state may be indicated in the right superscript position (e.g., state of ionization Ca2+).

The number of atoms of an element in a molecule or chemical compound is shown in the right subscript position (e.g., N2 or Fe2O3). If this number is one, it is normally omitted - the number one is implicitly understood if unspecified.

A radical is indicated by a dot on the right side (e.g., Cl• for a neutral chlorine atom). This is often omitted unless relevant to a certain context because it is already deducible from the charge and atomic number, as generally true for nonbonded valence electrons in skeletal structures.In Chinese, each chemical element has a dedicated character, usually created for the purpose (see Chemical elements in East Asian languages). However, Latin symbols are also used, especially in formulas.

A list of current, dated, as well as proposed and historical signs and symbols is included here with its signification. Also given is each element's atomic number, atomic weight or the atomic mass of the most stable isotope, group and period numbers on the periodic table, and etymology of the symbol.

Hazard pictographs are another type of symbols used in chemistry.

Transuranium element

The transuranium elements (also known as transuranic elements) are the chemical elements with atomic numbers greater than 92, which is the atomic number of uranium. All of these elements are unstable and decay radioactively into other elements.


Uranium-235 (235U) is an isotope of uranium making up about 0.72% of natural uranium. Unlike the predominant isotope uranium-238, it is fissile, i.e., it can sustain a fission chain reaction. It is the only fissile isotope with a primordial nuclide found in significant quantity in nature.

Uranium-235 has a half-life of 703.8 million years. It was discovered in 1935 by Arthur Jeffrey Dempster. Its fission cross section for slow thermal neutrons is about 584.994 barns. For fast neutrons it is on the order of 1 barn.

Most but not all neutron absorptions result in fission; a minority result in neutron capture forming uranium-236.

Isotopes of the chemical elements

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