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
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
All the elements and isotopes found on Earth, with the exceptions of hydrogen, deuterium, helium, helium-3, and perhaps trace amounts of stable lithium and beryllium isotopes which were created in the
Unstable isotopes decay to their daughter products (which may sometimes be even more unstable) at a given rate; eventually, often after a series of decays, a stable isotope is reached: there are about 200 stable isotopes in the universe. In stable isotopes, light elements typically have a lower ratio of neutrons to protons in their nucleus than heavier elements. Light elements such as
Three of those chains have a long-lived isotope (or nuclide) near the top; this long-lived isotope is a bottleneck in the process through which the chain flows very slowly, and keeps the chain below them "alive" with flow. The three long-lived nuclides are uranium-238 (half-life=4.5 billion years), uranium-235 (half-life=700 million years) and thorium-232 (half-life=14 billion years). The fourth chain has no such long lasting bottleneck isotope, so almost all of the isotopes in that chain have long since decayed down to very near the stability at the bottom. Near the end of that chain is bismuth-209, which was long thought to be stable. Recently, however, bismuth-209 was found to be unstable with a half-life of 19 billion billion years; it is the last step before stable thallium-205. In the distant past, around the time that the solar system formed, there were more kinds of unstable high-weight isotopes available, and the four chains were longer with isotopes that have since decayed away. Today we have manufactured extinct isotopes, which again take their former places: plutonium-239, the nuclear bomb fuel, as the major example has a half-life of "only" 24,500 years, and decays by alpha emission into uranium-235. In particular, we have through the large-scale production of neptunium-237 successfully resurrected the hitherto extinct fourth chain. The tables below hence start the four decay chains at isotopes of