scheme of two types of electron capture. top
: the nucleus absorbs an electron. lower left
: an outer electron replaces the "missing" electron. an x-ray, equal in energy to the difference between the two electron shells, is emitted. lower right
: in the auger effect, the energy absorbed when the outer electron replaces the inner electron is transferred to an outer electron. the outer electron is ejected from the atom, leaving a positive ion.
electron capture (k-electron capture, also k-capture, or l-electron capture, l-capture) is a process in which the proton-rich nucleus of an electrically neutral atom absorbs an inner atomic electron, usually from the k or l electron shell. this process thereby changes a nuclear proton to a neutron and simultaneously causes the emission of an electron neutrino.
- + → + e
since this single emitted neutrino carries the entire decay energy, it has this single characteristic energy. similarly, the momentum of the neutrino emission causes the daughter atom to recoil with a single characteristic momentum.
the resulting daughter nuclide, if it is in an excited state, then transitions to its ground state. usually, a gamma ray is emitted during this transition, but nuclear de-excitation may also take place by internal conversion.
following capture of an inner electron from the atom, an outer electron replaces the electron that was captured and one or more characteristic x-ray photons is emitted in this process. electron capture sometimes also results in the auger effect, where an electron is ejected from the atom's electron shell due to interactions between the atom's electrons in the process of seeking a lower energy electron state.
following electron capture, the atomic number is reduced by one, the neutron number is increased by one, and there is no change in mass number. simple electron capture by itself results in a neutral atom, since the loss of the electron in the electron shell is balanced by a loss of positive nuclear charge. however, a positive atomic ion may result from further auger electron emission.
electron capture is an example of weak interaction, one of the four fundamental forces.
electron capture is the primary decay mode for isotopes with a relative superabundance of protons in the nucleus, but with insufficient energy difference between the isotope and its prospective daughter (the isobar with one less positive charge) for the nuclide to decay by emitting a positron. electron capture is always an alternative decay mode for radioactive isotopes that do have sufficient energy to decay by positron emission.
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 nuclear physics, beta decay is a type of radioactive decay in which a beta ray (fast energetic electron or positron) and a neutrino are emitted from an atomic nucleus.
electron capture is sometimes called inverse beta decay, though this term usually refers to the interaction of an electron antineutrino with a proton.
if the energy difference between the parent atom and the daughter atom is less than 1.022 mev, positron emission is forbidden as not enough decay energy is available to allow it, and thus electron capture is the sole decay mode. for example, rubidium-83 (37 protons, 46 neutrons) will decay to krypton-83 (36 protons, 47 neutrons) solely by electron capture (the energy difference, or decay energy, is about 0.9 mev).