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.[note 1]
The decaying nucleus is called the parent radionuclide (or parent radioisotope[note 2]), 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.)
Radioactivity was discovered in 1896 by the French scientist Henri Becquerel, while working with phosphorescent materials. These materials glow in the dark after exposure to light, and he suspected that the glow produced in cathode ray tubes by X-rays might be associated with phosphorescence. He wrapped a photographic plate in black paper and placed various phosphorescent salts on it. All results were negative until he used uranium salts. The uranium salts caused a blackening of the plate in spite of the plate being wrapped in black paper. These radiations were given the name "Becquerel Rays".
It soon became clear that the blackening of the plate had nothing to do with phosphorescence, as the blackening was also produced by non-phosphorescent salts of uranium and by metallic uranium. It became clear from these experiments that there was a form of invisible radiation that could pass through paper and was causing the plate to react as if exposed to light.
At first, it seemed as though the new radiation was similar to the then recently discovered X-rays. Further research by Becquerel, Ernest Rutherford, Paul Villard, Pierre Curie, Marie Curie, and others showed that this form of radioactivity was significantly more complicated. Rutherford was the first to realize that all such elements decay in accordance with the same mathematical exponential formula. Rutherford and his student Frederick Soddy were the first to realize that many decay processes resulted in the transmutation of one element to another. Subsequently, the radioactive displacement law of Fajans and Soddy was formulated to describe the products of alpha and beta decay.
The early researchers also discovered that many other chemical elements, besides uranium, have radioactive isotopes. A systematic search for the total radioactivity in uranium ores also guided Pierre and Marie Curie to isolate two new elements: polonium and radium. Except for the radioactivity of radium, the chemical similarity of radium to barium made these two elements difficult to distinguish.
Marie and Pierre Curie’s study of radioactivity is an important factor in science and medicine. After their research on Becquerel's rays led them to the discovery of both radium and polonium, they coined the term "radioactivity". Their research on the penetrating rays in uranium and the discovery of radium launched an era of using radium for the treatment of cancer. Their exploration of radium could be seen as the first peaceful use of nuclear energy and the start of modern nuclear medicine.
The dangers of ionizing radiation due to radioactivity and X-rays were not immediately recognized.
The discovery of x‑rays by Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895 led to widespread experimentation by scientists, physicians, and inventors. Many people began recounting stories of burns, hair loss and worse in technical journals as early as 1896. In February of that year, Professor Daniel and Dr. Dudley of Vanderbilt University performed an experiment involving X-raying Dudley's head that resulted in his hair loss. A report by Dr. H.D. Hawks, of his suffering severe hand and chest burns in an X-ray demonstration, was the first of many other reports in Electrical Review.
Other experimenters, including Elihu Thomson and Nikola Tesla, also reported burns. Thomson deliberately exposed a finger to an X-ray tube over a period of time and suffered pain, swelling, and blistering. Other effects, including ultraviolet rays and ozone, were sometimes blamed for the damage, and many physicians still claimed that there were no effects from X-ray exposure at all.
Despite this, there were some early systematic hazard investigations, and as early as 1902 William Herbert Rollins wrote almost despairingly that his warnings about the dangers involved in the careless use of X-rays were not being heeded, either by industry or by his colleagues. By this time, Rollins had proved that X-rays could kill experimental animals, could cause a pregnant guinea pig to abort, and that they could kill a fetus. He also stressed that "animals vary in susceptibility to the external action of X-light" and warned that these differences be considered when patients were treated by means of X-rays.
However, the biological effects of radiation due to radioactive substances were less easy to gauge. This gave the opportunity for many physicians and corporations to market radioactive substances as patent medicines. Examples were radium enema treatments, and radium-containing waters to be drunk as tonics. Marie Curie protested against this sort of treatment, warning that the effects of radiation on the human body were not well understood. Curie later died from aplastic anaemia, likely caused by exposure to ionizing radiation. By the 1930s, after a number of cases of bone necrosis and death of radium treatment enthusiasts, radium-containing medicinal products had been largely removed from the market (radioactive quackery).
Only a year after Röntgen's discovery of X rays, the American engineer Wolfram Fuchs (1896) gave what is probably the first protection advice, but it was not until 1925 that the first International Congress of Radiology (ICR) was held and considered establishing international protection standards. The effects of radiation on genes, including the effect of cancer risk, were recognized much later. In 1927, Hermann Joseph Muller published research showing genetic effects and, in 1946, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his findings.
The second ICR was held in Stockholm in 1928 and proposed the adoption of the rontgen unit, and the 'International X-ray and Radium Protection Committee' (IXRPC) was formed. Rolf Sievert was named Chairman, but a driving force was George Kaye of the British National Physical Laboratory. The committee met in 1931, 1934 and 1937.
After World War II, the increased range and quantity of radioactive substances being handled as a result of military and civil nuclear programmes led to large groups of occupational workers and the public being potentially exposed to harmful levels of ionising radiation. This was considered at the first post-war ICR convened in London in 1950, when the present International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) was born. Since then the ICRP has developed the present international system of radiation protection, covering all aspects of radiation hazard.
The International System of Units (SI) unit of radioactive activity is the becquerel (Bq), named in honor of the scientist Henri Becquerel. One Bq is defined as one transformation (or decay or disintegration) per second.
An older unit of radioactivity is the curie, Ci, which was originally defined as "the quantity or mass of radium emanation in equilibrium with one gram of radium (element)". Today, the curie is defined as 3.7×1010 disintegrations per second, so that 1 curie (Ci) = 3.7×1010 Bq. For radiological protection purposes, although the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission permits the use of the unit curie alongside SI units, the European Union European units of measurement directives required that its use for "public health ... purposes" be phased out by 31 December 1985.
Early researchers found that an electric or magnetic field could split radioactive emissions into three types of beams. The rays were given the names alpha, beta, and gamma, in increasing order of their ability to penetrate matter. Alpha decay is observed only in heavier elements of atomic number 52 (tellurium) and greater, with the exception of beryllium-8 which decays to two alpha particles. The other two types of decay are produced by all of the elements. Lead, atomic number 82, is the heaviest element to have any isotopes stable (to the limit of measurement) to radioactive decay. Radioactive decay is seen in all isotopes of all elements of atomic number 83 (bismuth) or greater. Bismuth-209, however, is only very slightly radioactive, with a half-life greater than the age of the universe; radioisotopes with extremely long half-lives are considered effectively stable for practical purposes.
In analysing the nature of the decay products, it was obvious from the direction of the electromagnetic forces applied to the radiations by external magnetic and electric fields that alpha particles carried a positive charge, beta particles carried a negative charge, and gamma rays were neutral. From the magnitude of deflection, it was clear that alpha particles were much more massive than beta particles. Passing alpha particles through a very thin glass window and trapping them in a discharge tube allowed researchers to study the emission spectrum of the captured particles, and ultimately proved that alpha particles are helium nuclei. Other experiments showed beta radiation, resulting from decay and cathode rays, were high-speed electrons. Likewise, gamma radiation and X-rays were found to be high-energy electromagnetic radiation.
The relationship between the types of decays also began to be examined: For example, gamma decay was almost always found to be associated with other types of decay, and occurred at about the same time, or afterwards. Gamma decay as a separate phenomenon, with its own half-life (now termed isomeric transition), was found in natural radioactivity to be a result of the gamma decay of excited metastable nuclear isomers, which were in turn created from other types of decay.
Although alpha, beta, and gamma radiations were most commonly found, other types of emission were eventually discovered. Shortly after the discovery of the positron in cosmic ray products, it was realized that the same process that operates in classical beta decay can also produce positrons (positron emission), along with neutrinos (classical beta decay produces antineutrinos). In a more common analogous process, called electron capture, some proton-rich nuclides were found to capture their own atomic electrons instead of emitting positrons, and subsequently these nuclides emit only a neutrino and a gamma ray from the excited nucleus (and often also Auger electrons and characteristic X-rays, as a result of the re-ordering of electrons to fill the place of the missing captured electron). These types of decay involve the nuclear capture of electrons or emission of electrons or positrons, and thus acts to move a nucleus toward the ratio of neutrons to protons that has the least energy for a given total number of nucleons. This consequently produces a more stable (lower energy) nucleus.
(A theoretical process of positron capture, analogous to electron capture, is possible in antimatter atoms, but has not been observed, as complex antimatter atoms beyond antihelium are not experimentally available. Such a decay would require antimatter atoms at least as complex as beryllium-7, which is the lightest known isotope of normal matter to undergo decay by electron capture.)
Shortly after the discovery of the neutron in 1932, Enrico Fermi realized that certain rare beta-decay reactions immediately yield neutrons as a decay particle (neutron emission). Isolated proton emission was eventually observed in some elements. It was also found that some heavy elements may undergo spontaneous fission into products that vary in composition. In a phenomenon called cluster decay, specific combinations of neutrons and protons other than alpha particles (helium nuclei) were found to be spontaneously emitted from atoms.
Other types of radioactive decay were found to emit previously-seen particles, but via different mechanisms. An example is internal conversion, which results in an initial electron emission, and then often further characteristic X-rays and Auger electrons emissions, although the internal conversion process involves neither beta nor gamma decay. A neutrino is not emitted, and none of the electron(s) and photon(s) emitted originate in the nucleus, even though the energy to emit all of them does originate there. Internal conversion decay, like isomeric transition gamma decay and neutron emission, involves the release of energy by an excited nuclide, without the transmutation of one element into another.
Rare events that involve a combination of two beta-decay type events happening simultaneously are known (see below). Any decay process that does not violate the conservation of energy or momentum laws (and perhaps other particle conservation laws) is permitted to happen, although not all have been detected. An interesting example discussed in a final section, is bound state beta decay of rhenium-187. In this process, beta electron-decay of the parent nuclide is not accompanied by beta electron emission, because the beta particle has been captured into the K-shell of the emitting atom. An antineutrino is emitted, as in all negative beta decays.
Radionuclides can undergo a number of different reactions. These are summarized in the following table. A nucleus with mass number A and atomic number Z is represented as (A, Z). The column "Daughter nucleus" indicates the difference between the new nucleus and the original nucleus. Thus, (A − 1, Z) means that the mass number is one less than before, but the atomic number is the same as before.
If energy circumstances are favorable, a given radionuclide may undergo many competing types of decay, with some atoms decaying by one route, and others decaying by another. An example is copper-64, which has 29 protons, and 35 neutrons, which decays with a half-life of about 12.7 hours. This isotope has one unpaired proton and one unpaired neutron, so either the proton or the neutron can decay to the opposite particle. This particular nuclide (though not all nuclides in this situation) is almost equally likely to decay through positron emission (18%), or through electron capture (43%), as it does through electron emission (39%). The excited energy states resulting from these decays which fail to end in a ground energy state, also produce later internal conversion and gamma decay in almost 0.5% of the time.
More common in heavy nuclides is competition between alpha and beta decay. The daughter nuclides will then normally decay through beta or alpha, respectively, to end up in the same place.
|Mode of decay||Participating particles||Daughter nucleus|
|Decays with emission of nucleons:|
|Alpha decay||An alpha particle (A = 4, Z = 2) emitted from nucleus||(A − 4, Z − 2)|
|Proton emission||A proton ejected from nucleus||(A − 1, Z − 1)|
|Neutron emission||A neutron ejected from nucleus||(A − 1, Z)|
|Double proton emission||Two protons ejected from nucleus simultaneously||(A − 2, Z − 2)|
|Spontaneous fission||Nucleus disintegrates into two or more smaller nuclei and other particles||—|
|Cluster decay||Nucleus emits a specific type of smaller nucleus (A1, Z1) which is larger than an alpha particle||(A − A1, Z − Z1) + (A1, Z1)|
|Different modes of beta decay:|
|β− decay||A nucleus emits an electron and an electron antineutrino||(A, Z + 1)|
|Positron emission (β+ decay)||A nucleus emits a positron and an electron neutrino||(A, Z − 1)|
|Electron capture||A nucleus captures an orbiting electron and emits a neutrino; the daughter nucleus is left in an excited unstable state||(A, Z − 1)|
|Bound state beta decay||A free neutron or nucleus beta decays to electron and antineutrino, but the electron is not emitted, as it is captured into an empty K-shell; the daughter nucleus is left in an excited and unstable state. This process is a minority of free neutron decays (0.0004%) due to the low energy of hydrogen ionization, and is suppressed except in ionized atoms that have K-shell vacancies.||(A, Z + 1)|
|Double beta decay||A nucleus emits two electrons and two antineutrinos||(A, Z + 2)|
|Double electron capture||A nucleus absorbs two orbital electrons and emits two neutrinos – the daughter nucleus is left in an excited and unstable state||(A, Z − 2)|
|Electron capture with positron emission||A nucleus absorbs one orbital electron, emits one positron and two neutrinos||(A, Z − 2)|
|Double positron emission||A nucleus emits two positrons and two neutrinos||(A, Z − 2)|
|Transitions between states of the same nucleus:|
|Isomeric transition||Excited nucleus releases a high-energy photon (gamma ray)||(A, Z)|
|Internal conversion||Excited nucleus transfers energy to an orbital electron, which is subsequently ejected from the atom||(A, Z)|
Radioactive decay results in a reduction of summed rest mass, once the released energy (the disintegration energy) has escaped in some way. Although decay energy is sometimes defined as associated with the difference between the mass of the parent nuclide products and the mass of the decay products, this is true only of rest mass measurements, where some energy has been removed from the product system. This is true because the decay energy must always carry mass with it, wherever it appears (see mass in special relativity) according to the formula E = mc2. The decay energy is initially released as the energy of emitted photons plus the kinetic energy of massive emitted particles (that is, particles that have rest mass). If these particles come to thermal equilibrium with their surroundings and photons are absorbed, then the decay energy is transformed to thermal energy, which retains its mass.
Decay energy therefore remains associated with a certain measure of mass of the decay system, called invariant mass, which does not change during the decay, even though the energy of decay is distributed among decay particles. The energy of photons, the kinetic energy of emitted particles, and, later, the thermal energy of the surrounding matter, all contribute to the invariant mass of the system. Thus, while the sum of the rest masses of the particles is not conserved in radioactive decay, the system mass and system invariant mass (and also the system total energy) is conserved throughout any decay process. This is a restatement of the equivalent laws of conservation of energy and conservation of mass.
The decay rate, or activity, of a radioactive substance is characterized by:
Although these are constants, they are associated with the statistical behavior of populations of atoms. In consequence, predictions using these constants are less accurate for minuscule samples of atoms.
In principle a half-life, a third-life, or even a (1/√)-life, can be used in exactly the same way as half-life; but the mean life and half-life t1/2 have been adopted as standard times associated with exponential decay.
These are related as follows:
where N0 is the initial amount of active substance — substance that has the same percentage of unstable particles as when the substance was formed.
Radioactivity is one very frequently given example of exponential decay. The law describes the statistical behaviour of a large number of nuclides, rather than individual atoms. In the following formalism, the number of nuclides or the nuclide population N, is of course a discrete variable (a natural number)—but for any physical sample N is so large that it can be treated as a continuous variable. Differential calculus is used to model the behaviour of nuclear decay.
The mathematics of radioactive decay depend on a key assumption that a nucleus of a radionuclide has no "memory" or way of translating its history into its present behavior. A nucleus does not "age" with the passage of time. Thus, the probability of its breaking down does not increase with time, but stays constant no matter how long the nucleus has existed. This constant probability may vary greatly between different types of nuclei, leading to the many different observed decay rates. However, whatever the probability is, it does not change. This is in marked contrast to complex objects which do show aging, such as automobiles and humans. These systems do have a chance of breakdown per unit of time, that increases from the moment they begin their existence.
Consider the case of a nuclide A that decays into another B by some process A → B (emission of other particles, like electron neutrinos
e and electrons e− as in beta decay, are irrelevant in what follows). The decay of an unstable nucleus is entirely random in time so it is impossible to predict when a particular atom will decay. However, it is equally likely to decay at any instant in time. Therefore, given a sample of a particular radioisotope, the number of decay events −dN expected to occur in a small interval of time dt is proportional to the number of atoms present N, that is
Particular radionuclides decay at different rates, so each has its own decay constant λ. The expected decay −dN/N is proportional to an increment of time, dt:
where N0 is the value of N at time t = 0, with the decay constant expressed as λ
We have for all time t:
where Ntotal is the constant number of particles throughout the decay process, which is equal to the initial number of A nuclides since this is the initial substance.
If the number of non-decayed A nuclei is:
then the number of nuclei of B, i.e. the number of decayed A nuclei, is
Chain of two decays
Now consider the case of a chain of two decays: one nuclide A decaying into another B by one process, then B decaying into another C by a second process, i.e. A → B → C. The previous equation cannot be applied to the decay chain, but can be generalized as follows. Since A decays into B, then B decays into C, the activity of A adds to the total number of B nuclides in the present sample, before those B nuclides decay and reduce the number of nuclides leading to the later sample. In other words, the number of second generation nuclei B increases as a result of the first generation nuclei decay of A, and decreases as a result of its own decay into the third generation nuclei C. The sum of these two terms gives the law for a decay chain for two nuclides:
The rate of change of NB, that is dNB/dt, is related to the changes in the amounts of A and B, NB can increase as B is produced from A and decrease as B produces C.
Re-writing using the previous results:
The subscripts simply refer to the respective nuclides, i.e. NA is the number of nuclides of type A, NA0 is the initial number of nuclides of type A, λA is the decay constant for A - and similarly for nuclide B. Solving this equation for NB gives:
In the case where B is a stable nuclide (λB = 0), this equation reduces to the previous solution:
as shown above for one decay. The solution can be found by the integration factor method, where the integrating factor is eλBt. This case is perhaps the most useful, since it can derive both the one-decay equation (above) and the equation for multi-decay chains (below) more directly.
Chain of any number of decays
For the general case of any number of consecutive decays in a decay chain, i.e. A1 → A2 ··· → Ai ··· → AD, where D is the number of decays and i is a dummy index (i = 1, 2, 3, ...D), each nuclide population can be found in terms of the previous population. In this case N2 = 0, N3 = 0,..., ND = 0. Using the above result in a recursive form:
The general solution to the recursive problem is given by Bateman's equations:
In all of the above examples, the initial nuclide decays into just one product. Consider the case of one initial nuclide that can decay into either of two products, that is A → B and A → C in parallel. For example, in a sample of potassium-40, 89.3% of the nuclei decay to calcium-40 and 10.7% to argon-40. We have for all time t:
which is constant, since the total number of nuclides remains constant. Differentiating with respect to time:
defining the total decay constant λ in terms of the sum of partial decay constants λB and λC:
Solving this equation for NA:
where NA0 is the initial number of nuclide A. When measuring the production of one nuclide, one can only observe the total decay constant λ. The decay constants λB and λC determine the probability for the decay to result in products B or C as follows:
because the fraction λB/λ of nuclei decay into B while the fraction λC/λ of nuclei decay into C.
The above equations can also be written using quantities related to the number of nuclide particles N in a sample;
For the one-decay solution A → B:
In a radioactive decay process, this time constant is also the mean lifetime for decaying atoms. Each atom "lives" for a finite amount of time before it decays, and it may be shown that this mean lifetime is the arithmetic mean of all the atoms' lifetimes, and that it is τ, which again is related to the decay constant as follows:
This form is also true for two-decay processes simultaneously A → B + C, inserting the equivalent values of decay constants (as given above)
into the decay solution leads to:
A more commonly used parameter is the half-life. Given a sample of a particular radionuclide, the half-life is the time taken for half the radionuclide's atoms to decay. For the case of one-decay nuclear reactions:
the half-life is related to the decay constant as follows: set N = N0/2 and t = T1/2 to obtain
This relationship between the half-life and the decay constant shows that highly radioactive substances are quickly spent, while those that radiate weakly endure longer. Half-lives of known radionuclides vary widely, from more than 1019 years, such as for the very nearly stable nuclide 209Bi, to 10−23 seconds for highly unstable ones.
The factor of ln(2) in the above relations results from the fact that the concept of "half-life" is merely a way of selecting a different base other than the natural base e for the lifetime expression. The time constant τ is the e -1 -life, the time until only 1/e remains, about 36.8%, rather than the 50% in the half-life of a radionuclide. Thus, τ is longer than t1/2. The following equation can be shown to be valid:
Since radioactive decay is exponential with a constant probability, each process could as easily be described with a different constant time period that (for example) gave its "(1/3)-life" (how long until only 1/3 is left) or "(1/10)-life" (a time period until only 10% is left), and so on. Thus, the choice of τ and t1/2 for marker-times, are only for convenience, and from convention. They reflect a fundamental principle only in so much as they show that the same proportion of a given radioactive substance will decay, during any time-period that one chooses.
Mathematically, the nth life for the above situation would be found in the same way as above—by setting N = N0/n, t = T1/n and substituting into the decay solution to obtain
A sample of 14C has a half-life of 5,730 years and a decay rate of 14 disintegration per minute (dpm) per gram of natural carbon.
If an artifact is found to have radioactivity of 4 dpm per gram of its present C, we can find the approximate age of the object using the above equation:
The radioactive decay modes of electron capture and internal conversion are known to be slightly sensitive to chemical and environmental effects that change the electronic structure of the atom, which in turn affects the presence of 1s and 2s electrons that participate in the decay process. A small number of mostly light nuclides are affected. For example, chemical bonds can affect the rate of electron capture to a small degree (in general, less than 1%) depending on the proximity of electrons to the nucleus. In 7Be, a difference of 0.9% has been observed between half-lives in metallic and insulating environments. This relatively large effect is because beryllium is a small atom whose valence electrons are in 2s atomic orbitals, which are subject to electron capture in 7Be because (like all s atomic orbitals in all atoms) they naturally penetrate into the nucleus.
In 1992, Jung et al. of the Darmstadt Heavy-Ion Research group observed an accelerated β− decay of 163Dy66+. Although neutral 163Dy is a stable isotope, the fully ionized 163Dy66+ undergoes β− decay into the K and L shells to 163Ho66+ with a half-life of 47 days.
Rhenium-187 is another spectacular example. 187Re normally beta decays to 187Os with a half-life of 41.6 × 109 years, but studies using fully ionised 187Re atoms (bare nuclei) have found that this can decrease to only 33 years. This is attributed to "bound-state β− decay" of the fully ionised atom – the electron is emitted into the "K-shell" (1s atomic orbital), which cannot occur for neutral atoms in which all low-lying bound states are occupied.
A number of experiments have found that decay rates of other modes of artificial and naturally occurring radioisotopes are, to a high degree of precision, unaffected by external conditions such as temperature, pressure, the chemical environment, and electric, magnetic, or gravitational fields. Comparison of laboratory experiments over the last century, studies of the Oklo natural nuclear reactor (which exemplified the effects of thermal neutrons on nuclear decay), and astrophysical observations of the luminosity decays of distant supernovae (which occurred far away so the light has taken a great deal of time to reach us), for example, strongly indicate that unperturbed decay rates have been constant (at least to within the limitations of small experimental errors) as a function of time as well.
Recent results suggest the possibility that decay rates might have a weak dependence on environmental factors. It has been suggested that measurements of decay rates of silicon-32, manganese-54, and radium-226 exhibit small seasonal variations (of the order of 0.1%). However, such measurements are highly susceptible to systematic errors, and a subsequent paper has found no evidence for such correlations in seven other isotopes (22Na, 44Ti, 108Ag, 121Sn, 133Ba, 241Am, 238Pu), and sets upper limits on the size of any such effects. The decay of radon-222 was once reported to exhibit large 4% peak-to-peak seasonal variations (see plot), which were proposed to be related to either solar flare activity or the distance from the Sun, but detailed analysis of the experiment's design flaws, along with comparisons to other, much more stringent and systematically controlled, experiments refute this claim.
An unexpected series of experimental results for the rate of decay of heavy highly charged radioactive ions circulating in a storage ring has provoked theoretical activity in an effort to find a convincing explanation. The rates of weak decay of two radioactive species with half lives of about 40 s and 200 s are found to have a significant oscillatory modulation, with a period of about 7 s. The observed phenomenon is known as the GSI anomaly, as the storage ring is a facility at the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt, Germany. As the decay process produces an electron neutrino, some of the proposed explanations for the observed rate oscillation invoke neutrino properties. Initial ideas related to flavour oscillation met with skepticism. A more recent proposal involves mass differences between neutrino mass eigenstates.
The neutrons and protons that constitute nuclei, as well as other particles that approach close enough to them, are governed by several interactions. The strong nuclear force, not observed at the familiar macroscopic scale, is the most powerful force over subatomic distances. The electrostatic force is almost always significant, and, in the case of beta decay, the weak nuclear force is also involved.
The combined effects of these forces produces a number of different phenomena in which energy may be released by rearrangement of particles in the nucleus, or else the change of one type of particle into others. These rearrangements and transformations may be hindered energetically, so that they do not occur immediately. In certain cases, random quantum vacuum fluctuations are theorized to promote relaxation to a lower energy state (the "decay") in a phenomenon known as quantum tunneling. Radioactive decay half-life of nuclides has been measured over timescales of 55 orders of magnitude, from 2.3 × 10−23 seconds (for hydrogen-7) to 6.9 × 1031 seconds (for tellurium-128). The limits of these timescales are set by the sensitivity of instrumentation only, and there are no known natural limits to how brief or long a decay half-life for radioactive decay of a radionuclide may be.
The decay process, like all hindered energy transformations, may be analogized by a snowfield on a mountain. While friction between the ice crystals may be supporting the snow's weight, the system is inherently unstable with regard to a state of lower potential energy. A disturbance would thus facilitate the path to a state of greater entropy; the system will move towards the ground state, producing heat, and the total energy will be distributable over a larger number of quantum states thus resulting in an avalanche. The total energy does not change in this process, but, because of the second law of thermodynamics, avalanches have only been observed in one direction and that is toward the "ground state" — the state with the largest number of ways in which the available energy could be distributed.
Such a collapse (a gamma-ray decay event) requires a specific activation energy. For a snow avalanche, this energy comes as a disturbance from outside the system, although such disturbances can be arbitrarily small. In the case of an excited atomic nucleus decaying by gamma radiation in a spontaneous emission of electromagnetic radiation, the arbitrarily small disturbance comes from quantum vacuum fluctuations.
A radioactive nucleus (or any excited system in quantum mechanics) is unstable, and can, thus, spontaneously stabilize to a less-excited system. The resulting transformation alters the structure of the nucleus and results in the emission of either a photon or a high-velocity particle that has mass (such as an electron, alpha particle, or other type).
According to the Big Bang theory, stable isotopes of the lightest five elements (H, He, and traces of Li, Be, and B) were produced very shortly after the emergence of the universe, in a process called Big Bang nucleosynthesis. These lightest stable nuclides (including deuterium) survive to today, but any radioactive isotopes of the light elements produced in the Big Bang (such as tritium) have long since decayed. Isotopes of elements heavier than boron were not produced at all in the Big Bang, and these first five elements do not have any long-lived radioisotopes. Thus, all radioactive nuclei are, therefore, relatively young with respect to the birth of the universe, having formed later in various other types of nucleosynthesis in stars (in particular, supernovae), and also during ongoing interactions between stable isotopes and energetic particles. For example, carbon-14, a radioactive nuclide with a half-life of only 5,730 years, is constantly produced in Earth's upper atmosphere due to interactions between cosmic rays and nitrogen.
Nuclides that are produced by radioactive decay are called radiogenic nuclides, whether they themselves are stable or not. There exist stable radiogenic nuclides that were formed from short-lived extinct radionuclides in the early solar system. The extra presence of these stable radiogenic nuclides (such as Xe-129 from primordial I-129) against the background of primordial stable nuclides can be inferred by various means.
Radioactive decay has been put to use in the technique of radioisotopic labeling, which is used to track the passage of a chemical substance through a complex system (such as a living organism). A sample of the substance is synthesized with a high concentration of unstable atoms. The presence of the substance in one or another part of the system is determined by detecting the locations of decay events.
On the premise that radioactive decay is truly random (rather than merely chaotic), it has been used in hardware random-number generators. Because the process is not thought to vary significantly in mechanism over time, it is also a valuable tool in estimating the absolute ages of certain materials. For geological materials, the radioisotopes and some of their decay products become trapped when a rock solidifies, and can then later be used (subject to many well-known qualifications) to estimate the date of the solidification. These include checking the results of several simultaneous processes and their products against each other, within the same sample. In a similar fashion, and also subject to qualification, the rate of formation of carbon-14 in various eras, the date of formation of organic matter within a certain period related to the isotope's half-life may be estimated, because the carbon-14 becomes trapped when the organic matter grows and incorporates the new carbon-14 from the air. Thereafter, the amount of carbon-14 in organic matter decreases according to decay processes that may also be independently cross-checked by other means (such as checking the carbon-14 in individual tree rings, for example).
The Szilard–Chalmers effect is defined as the breaking of a chemical bond between an atom and the molecule that the atom is part of, as a result of a nuclear reaction of the atom. The effect can be used to separate isotopes by chemical means. The discovery of this effect is due to Leó Szilárd and Thomas A. Chalmers.
Radioactive primordial nuclides found in the Earth are residues from ancient supernova explosions that occurred before the formation of the solar system. They are the fraction of radionuclides that survived from that time, through the formation of the primordial solar nebula, through planet accretion, and up to the present time. The naturally occurring short-lived radiogenic radionuclides found in today's rocks, are the daughters of those radioactive primordial nuclides. Another minor source of naturally occurring radioactive nuclides are cosmogenic nuclides, that are formed by cosmic ray bombardment of material in the Earth's atmosphere or crust. The decay of the radionuclides in rocks of the Earth's mantle and crust contribute significantly to Earth's internal heat budget.
The daughter nuclide of a decay event may also be unstable (radioactive). In this case, it too will decay, producing radiation. The resulting second daughter nuclide may also be radioactive. This can lead to a sequence of several decay events called a decay chain (see this article for specific details of important natural decay chains). Eventually, a stable nuclide is produced. Any decay daughters that are the result of an alpha decay will also result in helium atoms being created.
An example is the natural decay chain of 238U:
Some radionuclides may have several different paths of decay. For example, approximately 36% of bismuth-212 decays, through alpha-emission, to thallium-208 while approximately 64% of bismuth-212 decays, through beta-emission, to polonium-212. Both thallium-208 and polonium-212 are radioactive daughter products of bismuth-212, and both decay directly to stable lead-208.
Atomic energy is energy carried by atoms. The term originated in 1903 when Ernest Rutherford began to speak of the possibility of atomic energy. The term was popularized by H. G. Wells in the phrase, "splitting the atom", devised at a time prior to the discovery of the nucleus. Atomic energy may include:
Nuclear binding energy, the energy required to split a nucleus of an atom.
Nuclear potential energy, the potential energy of the particles inside an atomic nucleus.
Nuclear reaction, a process in which nuclei or nuclear particles interact, resulting in products different from the initial ones; see also nuclear fission and nuclear fusion.
Radioactive decay, the set of various processes by which unstable atomic nuclei (nuclides) emit subatomic particles.
The energy of inter-atomic or chemical bonds, which holds atoms together in compounds.Atomic energy is the source of nuclear power, which uses sustained nuclear fission to generate heat and electricity.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 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.Forbidden mechanism
In spectroscopy, a forbidden mechanism (forbidden transition or forbidden line) is a spectral line associated with absorption or emission of light by atomic nuclei, atoms, or molecules which undergo a transition that is not allowed by a particular selection rule but is allowed if the approximation associated with that rule is not made. For example, in a situation where, according to usual approximations (such as the electric-dipole approximation for the interaction with light), the process cannot happen, but at a higher level of approximation (e.g. magnetic dipole, or electric quadrupole) the process is allowed but at a much lower rate.
An example is phosphorescent glow in the dark materials, which absorb light and form an excited state whose decay involves a spin flip, and is therefore forbidden by electric dipole transitions. The result is emission of light slowly over minutes or hours.
Although the transitions are nominally forbidden, there is a small probability of their spontaneous occurrence, should an atomic nucleus, atom or molecule be raised to an excited state. More precisely, there is a certain probability that such an excited entity will make a forbidden transition to a lower energy state per unit time; by definition, this probability is much lower than that for any transition permitted or allowed by the selection rules. Therefore, if a state can de-excite via a permitted transition (or otherwise, e.g. via collisions) it will almost certainly do so before any transition occurs via a forbidden route. Nevertheless, most forbidden transitions are only relatively unlikely: states that can only decay in this way (so-called meta-stable states) usually have lifetimes on the order milliseconds to seconds, compared to less than a microsecond for decay via permitted transitions. In some radioactive decay systems, multiple levels of forbiddenness can stretch life times by many orders of magnitude for each additional unit by which the system changes beyond what is most allowed under the selection rules. Such excited states can last years, or even for many billions of years (too long to have been measured).Gamma ray
A gamma ray or gamma radiation (symbol γ or ), is a penetrating electromagnetic radiation arising from the radioactive decay of atomic nuclei. It consists of the shortest wavelength electromagnetic waves and so imparts the highest photon energy. Paul Villard, a French chemist and physicist, discovered gamma radiation in 1900 while studying radiation emitted by radium. In 1903, Ernest Rutherford named this radiation gamma rays based on their relatively strong penetration of matter; he had previously discovered two less penetrating types of decay radiation, which he named alpha rays and beta rays in ascending order of penetrating power.
Gamma rays from radioactive decay are in the energy range from a few keV to ~8 MeV, corresponding to the typical energy levels in nuclei with reasonably long lifetimes. The energy spectrum of gamma rays can be used to identify the decaying radionuclides using gamma spectroscopy. Very-high-energy gamma rays in the 100–1000 TeV range have been observed from sources such as the Cygnus X-3 microquasar.
Natural sources of gamma rays originating on Earth are mostly as a result of radioactive decay and secondary radiation from atmospheric interactions with cosmic ray particles. However there are other rare natural sources, such as terrestrial gamma-ray flashes, that produce gamma rays from electron action upon the nucleus. Notable artificial sources of gamma rays include fission, such as occurs in nuclear reactors, as well as high energy physics experiments, such as neutral pion decay and nuclear fusion.
Gamma rays and X-rays are both electromagnetic radiation and they overlap in the electromagnetic spectrum, the terminology varies between scientific disciplines. In some fields of physics, they are distinguished by their origin: Gamma rays are created by nuclear decay, while in the case of X-rays, the origin is outside the nucleus. In astrophysics, gamma rays are conventionally defined as having photon energies above 100 keV and are the subject of gamma ray astronomy, while radiation below 100 keV is classified as X-rays and is the subject of X-ray astronomy. This convention stems from the early man-made X-rays, which had energies only up to 100 keV, whereas many gamma rays could go to higher energies. A large fraction of astronomical gamma rays are screened by Earth's atmosphere.
Gamma rays are ionizing radiation and are thus biologically hazardous. Due to their high penetration power, they can damage bone marrow and internal organs. Unlike alpha and beta rays, they pass easily through the body and thus pose a formidable radiation protection challenge, requiring shielding made from dense materials such as lead or concrete.Geothermal gradient
Geothermal gradient is the rate of increasing temperature with respect to increasing depth in the Earth's interior. Away from tectonic plate boundaries, it is about 25–30 °C/km (72-87 °F/mi) of depth near the surface in most of the world. Strictly speaking, geo-thermal necessarily refers to the Earth but the concept may be applied to other planets.
The Earth's internal heat comes from a combination of residual heat from planetary accretion, heat produced through radioactive decay, latent heat from core crystallization, and possibly heat from other sources. The major heat-producing isotopes in the Earth are potassium-40, uranium-238, uranium-235, and thorium-232. At the center of the planet, the temperature may be up to 7,000 K and the pressure could reach 360 GPa (3.6 million atm). Because much of the heat is provided by radioactive decay, scientists believe that early in Earth history, before isotopes with short half-lives had been depleted, Earth's heat production would have been much higher. Heat production was twice that of present-day at approximately 3 billion years ago, resulting in larger temperature gradients within the Earth, larger rates of mantle convection and plate tectonics, allowing the production of igneous rocks such as komatiites that are no longer formed.Half-life
Half-life (symbol t1⁄2) is the time required for a quantity to reduce to half its initial value. The term is commonly used in nuclear physics to describe how quickly unstable atoms undergo, or how long stable atoms survive, radioactive decay. The term is also used more generally to characterize any type of exponential or non-exponential decay. For example, the medical sciences refer to the biological half-life of drugs and other chemicals in the human body. The converse of half-life is doubling time.
The original term, half-life period, dating to Ernest Rutherford's discovery of the principle in 1907, was shortened to half-life in the early 1950s. Rutherford applied the principle of a radioactive element's half-life to studies of age determination of rocks by measuring the decay period of radium to lead-206.
Half-life is constant over the lifetime of an exponentially decaying quantity, and it is a characteristic unit for the exponential decay equation. The accompanying table shows the reduction of a quantity as a function of the number of half-lives elapsed.List of elements by stability of isotopes
This is a list of the chemical elements and their isotopes, listed in terms of stability.Atomic nuclei consist of protons and neutrons, which attract each other through the nuclear force, while protons repel each other via the electric force due to their positive charge. These two forces compete, leading to some combinations of neutrons and protons being more stable than others. Neutrons stabilize the nucleus, because they attract protons, which helps offset the electrical repulsion between protons. As a result, as the number of protons increases, an increasing ratio of neutrons to protons is needed to form a stable nucleus; if too many or too few neutrons are present with regard to the optimum ratio, the nucleus becomes unstable and subject to certain types of nuclear decay. Unstable isotopes decay through various radioactive decay pathways, most commonly alpha decay, beta decay, or electron capture. Many other rare types of decay, such as spontaneous fission or cluster decay are known. (See radioactive decay for details.)
Of the first 82 elements in the periodic table, 80 have isotopes considered to be stable. The 83rd element, bismuth, was traditionally regarded as having the heaviest stable isotope, bismuth-209, but in 2003 researchers in Orsay, France, measured the half-life of 209Bi to be 1.9×1019 years. Technetium, promethium (atomic numbers 43 and 61, respectively) and all the elements with an atomic number over 82 only have isotopes that are known to decompose through radioactive decay. No undiscovered elements are expected to be stable; therefore, lead is considered the heaviest stable element. However, it is possible that some isotopes that are now considered stable will be revealed to decay with extremely long half-lives (as with 209Bi). This list depicts what is agreed upon by the consensus of the scientific community as of 2016.For each of the 80 stable elements, the number of the stable isotopes is given. Only 90 isotopes are expected to be perfectly stable, and an additional 163 are energetically unstable, but have never been observed to decay. Thus, 253 isotopes (nuclides) are stable by definition (including tantalum-180m, for which no decay has yet been observed). Those that may in the future be found to be radioactive are expected to have half-lives longer than 1022 years (for example, xenon-134).Of the chemical elements, only one element (tin) has 10 such stable isotopes, one (xenon) has eight isotopes, four have seven isotopes, eight have six isotopes, ten have five isotopes, nine have four isotopes, five have three stable isotopes, 16 have two stable isotopes, and 26 have a single stable isotope.Additionally, about 29 nuclides of the naturally occurring elements have unstable isotopes with a half-life larger than the age of the Solar System (~109 years or more). An additional four nuclides have half-lives longer than 100 million years, which is far less than the age of the solar system, but long enough for some of them to have survived. These 33 radioactive naturally occurring nuclides comprise the radioactive primordial nuclides. The total number of primordial nuclides is then 253 (the stable nuclides) plus the 33 radioactive primordial nuclides, for a total of 286 primordial nuclides. This number is subject to change if new shorter-lived primordials are identified on Earth.
One of the primordial nuclides is tantalum-180m, which is predicted to have a half-life in excess of 1015 years, but has never been observed to decay. The even longer half-life of 7.7 x 1024 years of tellurium-128 was measured by a unique method of detecting its radiogenic daughter xenon-128 and is the longest known experimentally measured half-life. Another notable example is the only naturally occurring isotope of bismuth, bismuth-209, which has been predicted to be unstable with a very long half-life, but has been observed to decay. Because of their long half-lives, such isotopes are still found on Earth in various quantities, and together with the stable isotopes they are called primordial isotopes. All the primordial isotopes are given in order of their decreasing abundance on Earth.. For a list of primordial nuclides in order of half-life, see list of nuclides.
118 chemical elements are known to exist. All elements to element 94 are found in nature, and the remainder of the discovered elements are artificially produced, with isotopes all known to be highly radioactive with relatively short half-lives (see below). The elements in this list are ordered according to the lifetime of their most stable isotope. Of these, three elements (bismuth, thorium, and uranium) are primordial because they have half-lives long enough to still be found on the Earth, while all the others are produced either by radioactive decay or are synthesized in laboratories and nuclear reactors. Only 13 of the 38 known-but-unstable elements have isotopes with a half-life of at least 100 years. Every known isotope of the remaining 25 elements is highly radioactive; these are used in academic research and sometimes in industry and medicine. Some of the heavier elements in the periodic table may be revealed to have yet-undiscovered isotopes with longer lifetimes than those listed here.About 338 nuclides are found naturally on Earth. These comprise 253 stable isotopes, and with the addition of the 33 long-lived radioisotopes with half-lives longer than 100 million years, a total of 286 primordial nuclides, as noted above. The nuclides found naturally comprise not only the 286 primordials, but also include about 52 more short-lived isotopes (defined by a half-life less than 100 million years, too short to have survived from the formation of the Earth) that are daughters of primordial isotopes (such as radium from uranium); or else are made by energetic natural processes, such as carbon-14 made from atmospheric nitrogen by bombardment from cosmic rays.Mass number
The mass number (symbol A, from the German word Atomgewicht (atomic weight), also called atomic mass number or nucleon number, is the total number of protons and neutrons (together known as nucleons) in an atomic nucleus. It determines the atomic mass of atoms. Because protons and neutrons both are baryons, the mass number A is identical with the baryon number B as of the nucleus as of the whole atom or ion. The mass number is different for each different isotope of a chemical element. This is not the same as the atomic number (Z) which denotes the number of protons in a nucleus, and thus uniquely identifies an element. Hence, the difference between the mass number and the atomic number gives the number of neutrons (N) in a given nucleus: .
The mass number is written either after the element name or as a superscript to the left of an element's symbol. For example, the most common isotope of carbon is carbon-12, or 12
, which has 6 protons and 6 neutrons. The full isotope symbol would also have the atomic number (Z) as a subscript to the left of the element symbol directly below the mass number: 12
. This is technically redundant, as each element is defined by its atomic number, so it is often omitted.
Neutron emission is a mode of radioactive decay in which one or more neutrons are ejected from a nucleus. It occurs in the most neutron-rich/proton-deficient nucleides, and also from excited states of other nucleides as in photoneutron emission and beta-delayed neutron emission. As only a neutron is lost by this process the number of protons remains unchanged, and an atom does not become an atom of a different element, but a different isotope of the same element.
Neutrons are also produced in the spontaneous and induced fission of certain heavy nucleides.Nuclear fission
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction or a radioactive decay process in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller, lighter nuclei. The fission process often produces free neutrons and gamma photons, and releases a very large amount of energy even by the energetic standards of radioactive decay.
Nuclear fission of heavy elements was discovered on December 17, 1938 by German Otto Hahn and his assistant Fritz Strassmann, and explained theoretically in January 1939 by Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch. Frisch named the process by analogy with biological fission of living cells. For heavy nuclides, it is an exothermic reaction which can release large amounts of energy both as electromagnetic radiation and as kinetic energy of the fragments (heating the bulk material where fission takes place). In order for fission to produce energy, the total binding energy of the resulting elements must be more negative (greater binding energy) than that of the starting element.
Fission is a form of nuclear transmutation because the resulting fragments are not the same element as the original atom. The two nuclei produced are most often of comparable but slightly different sizes, typically with a mass ratio of products of about 3 to 2, for common fissile isotopes. Most fissions are binary fissions (producing two charged fragments), but occasionally (2 to 4 times per 1000 events), three positively charged fragments are produced, in a ternary fission. The smallest of these fragments in ternary processes ranges in size from a proton to an argon nucleus.
Apart from fission induced by a neutron, harnessed and exploited by humans, a natural form of spontaneous radioactive decay (not requiring a neutron) is also referred to as fission, and occurs especially in very high-mass-number isotopes. Spontaneous fission was discovered in 1940 by Flyorov, Petrzhak and Kurchatov in Moscow, when they decided to confirm that, without bombardment by neutrons, the fission rate of uranium was indeed negligible, as predicted by Niels Bohr; it was not.The unpredictable composition of the products (which vary in a broad probabilistic and somewhat chaotic manner) distinguishes fission from purely quantum-tunneling processes such as proton emission, alpha decay, and cluster decay, which give the same products each time. Nuclear fission produces energy for nuclear power and drives the explosion of nuclear weapons. Both uses are possible because certain substances called nuclear fuels undergo fission when struck by fission neutrons, and in turn emit neutrons when they break apart. This makes a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction possible, releasing energy at a controlled rate in a nuclear reactor or at a very rapid, uncontrolled rate in a nuclear weapon.
The amount of free energy contained in nuclear fuel is millions of times the amount of free energy contained in a similar mass of chemical fuel such as gasoline, making nuclear fission a very dense source of energy. The products of nuclear fission, however, are on average far more radioactive than the heavy elements which are normally fissioned as fuel, and remain so for significant amounts of time, giving rise to a nuclear waste problem. Concerns over nuclear waste accumulation and over the destructive potential of nuclear weapons are a counterbalance to the peaceful desire to use fission as an energy source.Potassium-40
Potassium-40 (40K) is a radioactive isotope of potassium which has a very long half-life of 1.251×109 years. It makes up 0.012% (120 ppm) of the total amount of potassium found in nature.
Potassium-40 is a rare example of an isotope that undergoes both types of beta decay. About 89.28% of the time, it decays to calcium-40 (40Ca) with emission of a beta particle (β−, an electron) with a maximum energy of 1.31 MeV and an antineutrino. About 10.72% of the time it decays to argon-40 (40Ar) by electron capture (EC), with the emission of a neutrino and then a 1.460 MeV gamma ray. The radioactive decay of this particular isotope explains the large abundance of argon (nearly 1%) in the earth's atmosphere, as well as its abundance compared to 36Ar. Very rarely (0.001% of the time) it will decay to 40Ar by emitting a positron (β+) and a neutrino.Proton emission
Proton emission (also known as proton radioactivity) is a rare type of radioactive decay in which a proton is ejected from a nucleus. Proton emission can occur from high-lying excited states in a nucleus following a beta decay, in which case the process is known as beta-delayed proton emission, or can occur from the ground state (or a low-lying isomer) of very proton-rich nuclei, in which case the process is very similar to alpha decay.
For a proton to escape a nucleus, the proton separation energy must be negative - the proton is therefore unbound, and tunnels out of the nucleus in a finite time. Proton emission is not seen in naturally occurring isotopes; proton emitters can be produced via nuclear reactions, usually using linear particle accelerators.
Although prompt (i.e. not beta-delayed) proton emission was observed from an isomer in cobalt-53 as early as 1969, no other proton-emitting states were found until 1981, when the proton radioactive ground states of lutetium-151 and thulium-147 were observed at experiments at the GSI in West Germany. Research in the field flourished after this breakthrough, and to date more than 25 isotopes have been found to exhibit proton emission. The study of proton emission has aided the understanding of nuclear deformation, masses, and structure, and it is a pure example of quantum tunneling.
In 2002, the simultaneous emission of two protons was observed from the nucleus iron-45 in experiments at GSI and GANIL (Grand Accélérateur National d'Ions Lourds at Caen). In 2005 it was experimentally determined (at the same facility) that zinc-54 can also undergo double proton decay.Radioactive displacement law of Fajans and Soddy
The law of radioactive displacements, also known as Fajans and Soddy law, in radiochemistry and nuclear physics, is a rule governing the transmutation of elements during radioactive decay. It is named after Frederick Soddy and Kazimierz Fajans, who independently arrived at it at about the same time in 1913.
The law describes which chemical element and isotope is created during the particular type of radioactive decay:
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.Spontaneous fission
Spontaneous fission (SF) is a form of radioactive decay that is found only in very heavy chemical elements. The nuclear binding energy of the elements reaches its maximum at an atomic mass number of about 56; spontaneous breakdown into smaller nuclei and a few isolated nuclear particles becomes possible at greater atomic mass numbers.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.Uraninite
Uraninite, formerly pitchblende, is a radioactive, uranium-rich mineral and ore with a chemical composition that is largely UO2, but due to oxidation the mineral typically contains variable proportions of U3O8. Additionally, due to radioactive decay, the ore also contains oxides of lead and trace amounts of helium. It may also contain thorium and rare earth elements.
Radiation (physics and health)