A nuclide (or nucleide, from nucleus, also known as nuclear species) is an atomic species characterized by the specific constitution of its nucleus, i.e., by its number of protons Z, its number of neutrons N, and its nuclear energy state.
The word nuclide was proposed by Truman P. Kohman in 1947. Kohman originally suggested nuclide as referring to a "species of atom characterized by the constitution of its nucleus" defined by containing a certain number of neutrons and protons. The word thus was originally intended to focus on the nucleus.
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, while 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 reactions is negligible for most elements. Even in the case of the very 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 biological systems). Since 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.
Although the words nuclide and isotope are often used interchangeably, being isotopes is actually only one relation between nuclides. The following table names some other relations.
|Isotopes||equal proton number (Z1=Z2)||12
|Isotones||equal neutron number (N1=N2)||13
|Isobars||equal mass number (Z1+N1 = Z2+N2)||17
|see beta decay|
|Isodiaphers||equal neutron excess (N1-Z1 = N2-Z2)||13
|Examples are isodiaphers with neutron excess 1.|
A nuclide and its alpha decay product are isodiaphers.
|Mirror nuclei||neutron and proton number exchanged
(Z1=N2 and Z2=N1)
|Nuclear isomers||same proton number and mass number,
but with different energy states
|m=metastable (long-lived excited state)|
A set of nuclides with equal proton number (atomic number), i.e., of the same chemical element but different neutron numbers, are called isotopes of the element. Particular nuclides are still often loosely called "isotopes", but the term "nuclide" is the correct one in general (i.e., when Z is not fixed). In similar manner, a set of nuclides with equal mass number A, but different atomic number, are called isobars (isobar = equal in weight), and isotones are nuclides of equal neutron number but different proton numbers. Likewise, nuclides with the same neutron excess (N - Z) are called isodiaphers. The name isotone has been derived from the name isotope to emphasize that in the first group of nuclides it is the number of neutrons (n) that is constant, whereas in the second the number of protons (p).
See Isotope#Notation for an explanation of the notation used for different nuclide or isotope types.
Nuclear isomers are members of a set of nuclides with equal proton number and equal mass number (thus making them by definition the same isotope), but different states of excitation. An example is the two states of the single isotope 99
shown among the decay schemes. Each of these two states (technetium-99m and technetium-99) qualifies as a different nuclide, illustrating one way that nuclides may differ from isotopes (an isotope may consist of several different nuclides of different excitation states).
The most long-lived non-ground state nuclear isomer is the nuclide tantalum-180m(180m
), which has a half-life in excess of 1,000 trillion years. This nuclide occurs primordially, and has never been observed to decay to the ground state. (In contrast, the ground state nuclide tantalum-180 does not occur primordially, since it decays with a half life of only 8 hours to 180Hf (86%) or 180W (14%)).
There are 253 nuclides in nature that have never been observed to decay. They occur among the 80 different elements that have one or more stable isotopes. See stable nuclide and primordial nuclide. Unstable nuclides are radioactive and are called radionuclides. Their decay products ('daughter' products) are called radiogenic nuclides. 253 stable and about 86 unstable (radioactive) nuclides exist naturally on Earth, for a total of about 339 naturally occurring nuclides on Earth.
Natural radionuclides may be conveniently subdivided into three types. First, those whose half-lives t1/2 are at least 2% as long as the age of the Earth (for practical purposes, these are difficult to detect with half-lives less than 10% of the age of the Earth) (4.6×109 years). These are remnants of nucleosynthesis that occurred in stars before the formation of the solar system. For example, the isotope 238
(t1/2 = 4.5×109 years) of uranium is still fairly abundant in nature, but the shorter-lived isotope 235
(t1/2 = 0.7×109 years) is 138 times rarer. About 34 of these nuclides have been discovered (see list of nuclides and primordial nuclide for details).
The second group of radionuclides that exist naturally consists of radiogenic nuclides such as 226
(t1/2 = 1602 years), an isotope of radium, which are formed by radioactive decay. They occur in the decay chains of primordial isotopes of uranium or thorium. Some of these nuclides are very short-lived, such as isotopes of francium. There exist about 51 of these daughter nuclides that have half-lives too short to be primordial, and which exist in nature solely due to decay from longer lived radioactive primordial nuclides.
The third group consists of nuclides that are continuously being made in another fashion that is not simple spontaneous radioactive decay (i.e., only one atom involved with no incoming particle) but instead involves a natural nuclear reaction. These occur when atoms react with natural neutrons (from cosmic rays, spontaneous fission, or other sources), or are bombarded directly with cosmic rays. The latter, if non-primordial, are called cosmogenic nuclides. Other types of natural nuclear reactions produce nuclides that are said to be nucleogenic nuclides.
An example of nuclides made by nuclear reactions, are cosmogenic 14
(radiocarbon) that is made by cosmic ray bombardment of other elements, and nucleogenic 239
which is still being created by neutron bombardment of natural 238
as a result of natural fission in uranium ores. Cosmogenic nuclides may be either stable or radioactive. If they are stable, their existence must be deduced against a background of stable nuclides, since every known stable nuclide is present on Earth primordially.
Beyond the 339 naturally occurring nuclides, more than 3000 radionuclides of varying half-lives have been artificially produced and characterized.
The known nuclides are shown in the chart of nuclides. A list of primordial nuclides is given sorted by element, at list of elements by stability of isotopes. A list of nuclides is also available, sorted by half-life, for the 905 nuclides with half-lives longer than one hour.
This is a summary table  for the 905 nuclides with half-lives longer than one hour, given in list of nuclides. Note that numbers are not exact, and may change slightly in the future, if some "stable" nuclides are observed to be radioactive with very long half-lives.
|Stability class||Number of nuclides||Running total||Notes on running total|
|Theoretically stable to all but proton decay||90||90||Includes first 40 elements. Proton decay yet to be observed.|
|Energetically unstable to one or more known decay modes, but no decay yet seen. Spontaneous fission possible for "stable" nuclides from niobium-93 onwards; other mechanisms possible for heavier nuclides. All considered "stable" until decay detected.||163||253||Total of classically stable nuclides.|
|Radioactive primordial nuclides.||33||286||Total primordial elements include bismuth, thorium, and uranium, plus all stable nuclides.|
|Radioactive non-primordial, but naturally occurring on Earth.||~ 53||~ 339||Carbon-14 (and other cosmogenic isotopes generated by cosmic rays); daughters of radioactive primordials, such as francium, etc., and nucleogenic nuclides from natural nuclear reactions that are other than those from cosmic rays (such as neutron absorption from spontaneous nuclear fission or neutron emission).|
|Radioactive synthetic (half-life > 1 hour). Includes most useful radiotracers.||556||905|
|Radioactive synthetic (half-life < 1 hour).||>2400||>3300||Includes all well-characterized synthetic nuclides.|
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 be bound 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.
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 nuclides (and nuclei) are the least common.
In nuclear physics, beta decay (β-decay) is a type of radioactive decay in which a beta ray (fast energetic electron or positron) is emitted from an atomic nucleus. For example, beta decay of a neutron transforms it into a proton by the emission of an electron accompanied by an antineutrino, or conversely a proton is converted into a neutron by the emission of a positron (positron emission) with a neutrino, thus changing the nuclide type. Neither the beta particle nor its associated (anti-)neutrino exist within the nucleus prior to beta decay, but are created in the decay process. By this process, unstable atoms obtain a more stable ratio of protons to neutrons. The probability of a nuclide decaying due to beta and other forms of decay is determined by its nuclear binding energy. The binding energies of all existing nuclides form what is called the nuclear band or valley of stability. For either electron or positron emission to be energetically possible, the energy release (see below) or Q value must be positive.
Beta decay is a consequence of the weak force, which is characterized by relatively lengthy decay times. Nucleons are composed of up quarks and down quarks, and the weak force allows a quark to change type by the exchange of a W boson and the creation of an electron/antineutrino or positron/neutrino pair. For example, a neutron, composed of two down quarks and an up quark, decays to a proton composed of a down quark and two up quarks. Decay times for many nuclides that are subject to beta decay can be thousands of years.
Electron capture is sometimes included as a type of beta decay, because the basic nuclear process, mediated by the weak force, is the same. In electron capture, an inner atomic electron is captured by a proton in the nucleus, transforming it into a neutron, and an electron neutrino is released.Cosmogenic nuclide
Cosmogenic nuclides (or cosmogenic isotopes) are rare nuclides (isotopes) created when a high-energy cosmic ray interacts with the nucleus of an in situ Solar System atom, causing nucleons (protons and neutrons) to be expelled from the atom (see cosmic ray spallation). These isotopes are produced within Earth materials such as rocks or soil, in Earth's atmosphere, and in extraterrestrial items such as meteorites. By measuring cosmogenic isotopes, scientists are able to gain insight into a range of geological and astronomical processes. There are both radioactive and stable cosmogenic isotopes. Some of these radioisotopes are tritium, carbon-14 and phosphorus-32.
Certain light (low atomic number) primordial nuclides (some isotopes of lithium, beryllium and boron) are thought to have arisen not only during the Big Bang, and also (and perhaps primarily) to have been made after the Big Bang, but before the condensation of the Solar System, by the process of cosmic ray spallation on interstellar gas and dust. This explains their higher abundance in cosmic rays as compared with their ratios and abundances of certain other nuclides on Earth. This also explains the overabundance of the early transition metals just before iron in the periodic table; the cosmic-ray spallation of iron thus produces scandium through chromium on one hand and helium through boron on the other. However, the arbitrary defining qualification for cosmogenic nuclides of being formed "in situ in the Solar System" (meaning inside an already-aggregated piece of the Solar System) prevents primordial nuclides formed by cosmic ray spallation before the formation of the Solar System, from being termed "cosmogenic nuclides"— even though the mechanism for their formation is exactly the same. These same nuclides still arrive on Earth in small amounts in cosmic rays, and are formed in meteoroids, in the atmosphere, on Earth, "cosmogenically." However, beryllium (all of it stable beryllium-9) is present primordially in the Solar System in much larger amounts, having existed prior to the condensation of the Solar System, and thus present in the materials from which the Solar System formed.
To make the distinction in another fashion, the timing of their formation determines which subset of cosmic ray spallation-produced nuclides are termed primordial or cosmogenic (a nuclide cannot belong to both classes). By convention, certain stable nuclides of lithium, beryllium, and boron are thought to have been produced by cosmic ray spallation in the period of time between the Big Bang and the Solar System's formation (thus making these primordial nuclides, by definition) are not termed "cosmogenic," even though they were formed by the same process as the cosmogenic nuclides (although at an earlier time). The primordial nuclide beryllium-9, the only stable beryllium isotope, is an example of this type of nuclide.
In contrast, even though the radioactive isotopes beryllium-7 and beryllium-10 fall into this series of three light elements (lithium, beryllium, boron) formed mostly by cosmic ray spallation nucleosynthesis, both of these nuclides have half lives too short for them to have been formed before the formation of the Solar System, and thus they cannot be primordial nuclides. Since the cosmic ray spallation route is the only possible source of beryllium-7 and beryllium-10 occurrence naturally in the environment, they are therefore cosmogenic.Decay energy
The decay energy is the energy released by a radioactive decay. Radioactive decay is the process in which an unstable atomic nucleus loses energy by emitting ionizing particles and radiation. This decay, or loss of energy, results in an atom of one type, called the parent nuclide transforming to an atom of a different type, called the daughter nuclide.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.Fertile material
Fertile material is a material that, although not itself fissionable by thermal neutrons, can be converted into a fissile material by neutron absorption and subsequent nuclei conversions.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.Isobar (nuclide)
Isobars are atoms (nuclides) of different chemical elements that have the same number of nucleons. Correspondingly, isobars differ in atomic number (or number of protons) but have the same mass number. An example of a series of isobars would be 40S, 40Cl, 40Ar, 40K, and 40Ca. The nuclei of these nuclides all contain 40 nucleons; however, they contain varying numbers of protons and neutrons.The term "isobars" (originally "isobares") for nuclides was suggested by Alfred Walter Stewart in 1918. It is derived from the Greek word isos, meaning "equal" and baros, meaning "weight".Isotope
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.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. 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.Neutron number
The neutron number, symbol N, is the number of neutrons in a nuclide.
Atomic number (proton number) plus neutron number equals mass number: Z+N=A. The difference between the neutron number and the atomic number is known as the neutron excess: D = N - Z = A - 2Z.
Neutron number is rarely written explicitly in nuclide symbol notation, but appears as a subscript to the right of the element symbol. In order of increasing explicitness and decreasing frequency of usage:
Nuclides that have the same neutron number but a different proton number are called isotones. This word was formed by replacing the p in isotope with n for neutron. Nuclides that have the same mass number are called isobars. Nuclides that have the same neutron excess are called isodiaphers.Chemical properties are primarily determined by proton number, which determines which chemical element the nuclide is a member of; neutron number has only a slight influence.
Neutron number is primarily of interest for nuclear properties. For example, actinides with odd neutron number are usually fissile (fissionable with slow neutrons) while actinides with even neutron number are usually not fissile (but are fissionable with fast neutrons).
Only 57 stable nuclides have an odd neutron number, compared to 200 with an even neutron number. No odd-neutron-number isotope is the most naturally abundant isotope in its element, except for beryllium-9 which is the only stable beryllium isotope, nitrogen-14, and platinum-195.
No stable nuclides have neutron number 19, 21, 35, 39, 45, 61, 89, 115, 123, and ≥ 127. There are 6 stable nuclides and one radioactive primordial nuclide with neutron number 82 (82 is the neutron number with the most stable nuclides, since it is a magic number): barium-138, lanthanum-139, cerium-140, praseodymium-141, neodymium-142, and samarium-144, as well as the radioactive primordial nuclide xenon-136. Except 20, 50 and 82 (all these three numbers are magic numbers), all other neutron numbers have at most 4 stable isotopes (in the case of 20, there are 5 stable isotopes 36S, 37Cl, 38Ar, 39K, and 40Ca, and in the case for 50, there are 5 stable nuclides: 86Kr, 88Sr, 89Y, 90Zr, and 92Mo, and 1 radioactive primordial nuclide, 87Rb). All odd neutron numbers have at most one stable isotope (except 1 (2H and 3He), 5 (9Be and 10B), 7 (13C and 14N), 55 (97Mo and 99Ru) and 107 (179Hf and 180mTa). However, some even neutron numbers also have only one stable isotope; these numbers are 2 (4He), 4 (7Li), 84 (142Ce), 86 (146Nd) and 126 (208Pb).
Only two stable nuclides have fewer neutrons than protons: hydrogen-1 and helium-3. Hydrogen-1 has the smallest neutron number, 0.Nuclear isomer
A nuclear isomer is a metastable state of an atomic nucleus caused by the excitation of one or more of its nucleons (protons or neutrons). "Metastable" describes nuclei whose excited states have half-lives 100 to 1000 times longer than the half-lives of the excited nuclear states that decay with a "prompt" half life (ordinarily on the order of 10−12 seconds). The term "metastable" is usually restricted to isomers with half-lives of 10−9 seconds or longer. Some references recommend 5 × 10−9 seconds to distinguish the metastable half life from the normal "prompt" gamma emission half life. Occasionally the half-lives are far longer than this and can last minutes, hours, or years. For example the 180m73Ta nuclear isomer survives so long that it has never been observed to decay (at least 1015 years).
Sometimes, the gamma decay from a metastable state is referred to as isomeric transition, but this process typically resembles shorter-lived gamma decays in all external aspects with the exception of the long-lived nature of the meta-stable parent nuclear isomer . The longer lives of nuclear isomers' metastable states are often due to the larger degree of nuclear spin change which must be involved in their gamma emission to reach the ground state. This high spin change causes these decays to be forbidden transitions and delayed. Delays in emission are caused by low or high available decay energy.
The first nuclear isomer and decay-daughter system (uranium X2/uranium Z, now known as 234m91Pa/23491Pa) was discovered by Otto Hahn in 1921.Nuclear reaction
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, a nuclear reaction is semantically considered to be the process in which two nuclei, or else a nucleus of an atom and a subatomic particle (such as a proton, neutron, or high energy electron) from outside the atom, collide to produce one or more nuclides that are different from the nuclide(s) that began the process. Thus, a nuclear reaction must cause a transformation of at least one nuclide to another. If a nucleus interacts with another nucleus or particle and they then separate without changing the nature of any nuclide, the process is simply referred to as a type of nuclear scattering, rather than a nuclear reaction.
In principle, a reaction can involve more than two particles colliding, but because the probability of three or more nuclei to meet at the same time at the same place is much less than for two nuclei, such an event is exceptionally rare (see triple alpha process for an example very close to a three-body nuclear reaction). "Nuclear reaction" is a term implying an induced changing in a nuclide, and thus it does not apply to any type of radioactive decay (which by definition is a spontaneous process).Natural nuclear reactions occur in the interaction between cosmic rays and matter, and nuclear reactions can be employed artificially to obtain nuclear energy, at an adjustable rate, on demand. Perhaps the most notable nuclear reactions are the nuclear chain reactions in fissionable materials that produce induced nuclear fission, and the various nuclear fusion reactions of light elements that power the energy production of the Sun and stars.Nucleon
In chemistry and physics, a nucleon is either a proton or a neutron, considered in its role as a component of an atomic nucleus. The number of nucleons in a nucleus defines an isotope's mass number (nucleon number).
Until the 1960s, nucleons were thought to be elementary particles, not made up of smaller parts. Now they are known to be composite particles, made of three quarks bound together by the so-called strong interaction. The interaction between two or more nucleons is called internucleon interaction or nuclear force, which is also ultimately caused by the strong interaction. (Before the discovery of quarks, the term "strong interaction" referred to just internucleon interactions.)
Nucleons sit at the boundary where particle physics and nuclear physics overlap. Particle physics, particularly quantum chromodynamics, provides the fundamental equations that explain the properties of quarks and of the strong interaction. These equations explain quantitatively how quarks can bind together into protons and neutrons (and all the other hadrons). However, when multiple nucleons are assembled into an atomic nucleus (nuclide), these fundamental equations become too difficult to solve directly (see lattice QCD). Instead, nuclides are studied within nuclear physics, which studies nucleons and their interactions by approximations and models, such as the nuclear shell model. These models can successfully explain nuclide properties, as for example, whether or not a particular nuclide undergoes radioactive decay.
The proton and neutron are both fermions, hadrons and baryons. The proton carries a positive net charge and the neutron carries a zero net charge; the proton's mass is only about 0.13% less than the neutron's. Thus, they can be viewed as two states of the same nucleon, and together form an isospin doublet (I = 1⁄2). In isospin space, neutrons can be transformed into protons via SU(2) symmetries, and vice versa. These nucleons are acted upon equally by the strong interaction, which is invariant under rotation in isospin space. According to the Noether theorem, isospin is conserved with respect to the strong interaction.Primordial nuclide
In geochemistry, geophysics and geonuclear physics, primordial nuclides, also known as primordial isotopes, are nuclides found on Earth that have existed in their current form since before Earth was formed. Primordial nuclides were present in the interstellar medium from which the solar system was formed, and were formed in, or after, the Big Bang, by nucleosynthesis in stars and supernovae followed by mass ejection, by cosmic ray spallation, and potentially from other processes. They are the stable nuclides plus the long-lived fraction of radionuclides surviving in the primordial solar nebula through planet accretion until the present. Only 286 such nuclides are known.Radioactive decay
Radioactive decay (also known as nuclear decay, radioactivity or nuclear radiation) is a condition and natural process in which subatomic particles (protons and neutrons) within the atomic nucleus of a radioisotope decay due to the instability of the atom. This produces ionized radiation in the form of alpha particles, beta particles with neutrino or only a neutrino in the case of electron capture, or gamma rays. The rate of disintegration can be measured on a logarithmic scale. A material containing such unstable nuclei is considered radioactive. Certain highly excited short-lived nuclear states can decay through neutron emission, or more rarely, proton emission.
Radioactive decay is a stochastic (i.e. random) process at the level of single atoms. According to quantum theory, it is impossible to predict when a particular atom will decay, regardless of how long the atom has existed. However, for a collection of atoms, the collection's expected decay rate is characterized in terms of their measured decay constants or half-lives. This is the basis of radiometric dating. The half-lives of radioactive atoms have no known upper limit, spanning a time range of over 55 orders of magnitude, from nearly instantaneous to far longer than the age of the universe.
A radioactive nucleus with zero spin can have no defined orientation, and hence emits the total momentum of its decay products isotropically (all directions and without bias). If there are multiple particles produced during a single decay, as in beta decay, their relative angular distribution, or spin directions may not be isotropic. Decay products from a nucleus with spin may be distributed non-isotropically with respect to that spin direction, either because of an external influence such as an electromagnetic field, or because the nucleus was produced in a dynamic process that constrained the direction of its spin. Such a parent process could be a previous decay, or a nuclear reaction.The decaying nucleus is called the parent radionuclide (or parent radioisotope), and the process produces at least one daughter nuclide. Except for gamma decay or internal conversion from a nuclear excited state, the decay is a nuclear transmutation resulting in a daughter containing a different number of protons or neutrons (or both). When the number of protons changes, an atom of a different chemical element is created.
The first decay processes to be discovered were alpha decay, beta decay, and gamma decay. Alpha decay occurs when the nucleus ejects an alpha particle (helium nucleus). This is the most common process of emitting nucleons, but highly excited nuclei can eject single nucleons, or in the case of cluster decay, specific light nuclei of other elements. Beta decay occurs in two ways:
(i) beta-minus decay, when the nucleus emits an electron and an antineutrino in a process that changes a neutron to a proton, or
(ii) beta-plus decay, when the nucleus emits a positron and a neutrino in a process that changes a proton to a neutron.
Highly excited neutron-rich nuclei, formed as the product of other types of decay, occasionally lose energy by way of neutron emission, resulting in a change from one isotope to another of the same element. The nucleus may capture an orbiting electron, causing a proton to convert into a neutron in a process called electron capture. All of these processes result in a well-defined nuclear transmutation.
By contrast, there are radioactive decay processes that do not result in a nuclear transmutation. The energy of an excited nucleus may be emitted as a gamma ray in a process called gamma decay, or that energy may be lost when the nucleus interacts with an orbital electron causing its ejection from the atom, in a process called internal conversion.
Another type of radioactive decay results in products that vary, appearing as two or more "fragments" of the original nucleus with a range of possible masses. This decay, called spontaneous fission, happens when a large unstable nucleus spontaneously splits into two (or occasionally three) smaller daughter nuclei, and generally leads to the emission of gamma rays, neutrons, or other particles from those products.
For a summary table showing the number of stable and radioactive nuclides in each category, see radionuclide. There are 28 naturally occurring chemical elements on Earth that are radioactive, consisting of 33 radionuclides (5 elements have 2 different radionuclides) that date before the time of formation of the solar system. These 33 are known as primordial nuclides. Well-known examples are uranium and thorium, but also included are naturally occurring long-lived radioisotopes, such as potassium-40. Another 50 or so shorter-lived radionuclides, such as radium and radon, found on Earth, are the products of decay chains that began with the primordial nuclides, or are the product of ongoing cosmogenic processes, such as the production of carbon-14 from nitrogen-14 in the atmosphere by cosmic rays. Radionuclides may also be produced artificially in particle accelerators or nuclear reactors, resulting in 650 of these with half-lives of over an hour, and several thousand more with even shorter half-lives. (See List of nuclides for a list of these sorted by half-life.)Radiogenic nuclide
A radiogenic nuclide is a nuclide that is produced by a process of radioactive decay. It may itself be radioactive (a radionuclide) or stable (a stable nuclide).
Radiogenic nuclides (more commonly referred to as radiogenic isotopes) form some of the most important tools in geology. They are used in two principal ways:
In comparison with the quantity of the radioactive 'parent isotope' in a system, the quantity of the radiogenic 'daughter product' is used as a radiometric dating tool (e.g. uranium–lead geochronology).
In comparison with the quantity of a non-radiogenic isotope of the same element, the quantity of the radiogenic isotope is used to define its isotopic signature (e.g. 206Pb/204Pb). This technique is discussed in more detail under the heading isotope geochemistry.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.Radionuclide
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 nuclide
Stable nuclides are nuclides that are not radioactive and so (unlike radionuclides) do not spontaneously undergo radioactive decay. When such nuclides are referred to in relation to specific elements, they are usually termed stable isotopes.
The 80 elements with one or more stable isotopes comprise a total of 253 nuclides that have not been known to decay using current equipment (see list at the end of this article). Of these elements, 26 have only one stable isotope; they are thus termed monoisotopic. The rest have more than one stable isotope. Tin has ten stable isotopes, the largest number of isotopes known for an element.Table of nuclides
A table of nuclides or chart of nuclides is a two-dimensional graph in which one axis represents the number of neutrons and the other represents the number of protons in an atomic nucleus. Each point plotted on the graph thus represents the nuclide of a real or hypothetical chemical element. This system of ordering nuclides can offer a greater insight into the characteristics of isotopes than the better-known periodic table, which shows only elements instead of each of their isotopes.
Charts of nuclides
|Articles on isotopes of an element|
Various tables and lists of the nuclides