Alpha particles, also called alpha ray or alpha radiation, consist of two protons and two neutrons bound together into a particle identical to a helium-4 nucleus. They are generally produced in the process of alpha decay, but may also be produced in other ways. Alpha particles are named after the first letter in the Greek alphabet, α. The symbol for the alpha particle is α or α2+. Because they are identical to helium nuclei, they are also sometimes written as He2+
indicating a helium ion with a +2 charge (missing its two electrons). If the ion gains electrons from its environment, the alpha particle becomes a normal (electrically neutral) helium atom 4
Alpha particles, like helium nuclei, have a net spin of zero. Due to the mechanism of their production in standard alpha radioactive decay, alpha particles generally have a kinetic energy of about 5 MeV, and a velocity in the vicinity of 5% the speed of light. (See discussion below for the limits of these figures in alpha decay.) They are a highly ionizing form of particle radiation, and (when resulting from radioactive alpha decay) have low penetration depth. They can be stopped by a few centimeters of air, or by the skin.
However, so-called long range alpha particles from ternary fission are three times as energetic, and penetrate three times as far. As noted, the helium nuclei that form 10–12% of cosmic rays are also usually of much higher energy than those produced by nuclear decay processes, and are thus capable of being highly penetrating and able to traverse the human body and also many meters of dense solid shielding, depending on their energy. To a lesser extent, this is also true of very high-energy helium nuclei produced by particle accelerators.
When alpha particle emitting isotopes are ingested, they are far more dangerous than their half-life or decay rate would suggest, due to the high relative biological effectiveness of alpha radiation to cause biological damage. Alpha radiation is an average of about 20 times more dangerous, and in experiments with inhaled alpha emitters, up to 1000 times more dangerous than an equivalent activity of beta emitting or gamma emitting radioisotopes.
Some science authors use doubly ionized helium nuclei (He2+
) and alpha particles as interchangeable terms. The nomenclature is not well defined, and thus not all high-velocity helium nuclei are considered by all authors to be alpha particles. As with beta and gamma particles/rays, the name used for the particle carries some mild connotations about its production process and energy, but these are not rigorously applied. Thus, alpha particles may be loosely used as a term when referring to stellar helium nuclei reactions (for example the alpha processes), and even when they occur as components of cosmic rays. A higher energy version of alphas than produced in alpha decay is a common product of an uncommon nuclear fission result called ternary fission. However, helium nuclei produced by particle accelerators (cyclotrons, synchrotrons, and the like) are less likely to be referred to as "alpha particles".