Radioactive decay

  • alpha decay is one type of radioactive decay, in which an atomic nucleus emits an alpha particle, and thereby transforms (or "decays") into an atom with a mass number decreased by 4 and atomic number decreased by 2.

    radioactive decay (also known as nuclear decay, radioactivity, radioactive disintegration or nuclear disintegration) is the process by which an unstable atomic nucleus loses energy by radiation. a material containing unstable nuclei is considered radioactive. three of the most common types of decay are alpha decay, beta decay, and gamma decay, all of which involve emitting one or more particles or photons. the weak force is the mechanism that is responsible for beta decay.[1]

    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.[2][3][4] however, for a significant number of identical atoms, the overall decay rate can be expressed as a decay constant or as half-life. the half-lives of radioactive atoms have a huge range; from nearly instantaneous to far longer than the age of the universe.

    the decaying nucleus is called the parent radionuclide (or parent radioisotope[note 1]), 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.

    • alpha decay occurs when the nucleus ejects an alpha particle (helium nucleus).
    • 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.
    • in gamma decay a radioactive nucleus first decays by the emission of an α or β particle. the daughter nucleus that results is usually left in an excited state and it can decay to a lower energy state by emitting a gamma ray photon.
    • in neutron emission highly excited neutron-rich nuclei, formed due to 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.
    • in electron capture 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. in contrast, 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, the anisotropy may be detectable. such a parent process could be a previous decay, or a nuclear reaction.[5][6][7][note 2]

    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 34 radionuclides (6 elements have 2 different radionuclides) that date before the time of formation of the solar system. these 34 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-226 and radon-222, 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.)

  • history of discovery
  • early health dangers
  • units of radioactivity
  • types of decay
  • radioactive decay rates
  • mathematics of radioactive decay
  • changing decay rates
  • theoretical basis of decay phenomena
  • occurrence and applications
  • origins of radioactive nuclides
  • decay chains and multiple modes
  • associated hazard warning signs
  • see also
  • notes
  • references
  • external links

Alpha decay is one type of radioactive decay, in which an atomic nucleus emits an alpha particle, and thereby transforms (or "decays") into an atom with a mass number decreased by 4 and atomic number decreased by 2.

Radioactive decay (also known as nuclear decay, radioactivity, radioactive disintegration or nuclear disintegration) is the process by which an unstable atomic nucleus loses energy by radiation. A material containing unstable nuclei is considered radioactive. Three of the most common types of decay are alpha decay, beta decay, and gamma decay, all of which involve emitting one or more particles or photons. The weak force is the mechanism that is responsible for beta decay.[1]

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.[2][3][4] However, for a significant number of identical atoms, the overall decay rate can be expressed as a decay constant or as half-life. The half-lives of radioactive atoms have a huge range; from nearly instantaneous to far longer than the age of the universe.

The decaying nucleus is called the parent radionuclide (or parent radioisotope[note 1]), 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.

  • Alpha decay occurs when the nucleus ejects an alpha particle (helium nucleus).
  • 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.
  • In gamma decay a radioactive nucleus first decays by the emission of an α or β particle. The daughter nucleus that results is usually left in an excited state and it can decay to a lower energy state by emitting a gamma ray photon.
  • In Neutron emission highly excited neutron-rich nuclei, formed due to 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.
  • In Electron capture 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. In contrast, 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, the anisotropy may be detectable. Such a parent process could be a previous decay, or a nuclear reaction.[5][6][7][note 2]

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 34 radionuclides (6 elements have 2 different radionuclides) that date before the time of formation of the Solar System. These 34 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-226 and radon-222, 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.)