What is Radioactive Decay

Notation of nuclear reactions - radioactive decays

Notation of nuclear reactions – radioactive decays
Source: chemwiki.ucdavis.edu

Nuclear decay (Radioactive decay) occurs when an unstable atom loses energy by emitting ionizing radiation. Radioactive decay is a random process at the level of single atoms, in that, according to quantum theory, it is impossible to predict when a particular atom will decay. There are many types of radioactive decay:

  • Alpha radioactivity. Alpha particles consist of two protons and two neutrons bound together into a particle identical to a helium nucleus. Because of its very large mass (more than 7000 times the mass of the beta particle) and its charge, it heavy ionizes material and has a very short range.
  • Beta radioactivity. Consist of beta particles. Beta particles are high-energy, high-speed electrons or positrons emitted by certain types of radioactive nuclei such as potassium-40. The beta particles have greater range of penetration than alpha particles, but still much less than gamma rays.The beta particles emitted are a form of ionizing radiation also known as beta rays. The production of beta particles is termed beta decay.
  • Gamma radioactivity. Gamma radioactivity consist of gamma rays. Gamma rays are electromagnetic radiation (high energy photons) of an very high frequency and of a high energy. They are produced by the decay of nuclei as they transition from a high energy state to a lower state known as gamma decay. Most of nuclear reactions are accompanied by gamma emission.
  • Neutron emission. Neutron emission is a type of radioactive decay of nuclei containing excess neutrons (especially fission products), in which a neutron is simply ejected from the nucleus. This type of radiation plays key role in nuclear reactor control, because these neutrons are delayed  neutrons.

Radioactive Decay Law

Calculations of the decay of radioactive nuclei are relatively straightforward, owing to the fact that there is only one fundamental law governing all decay process. This law states that the probability per unit time that a nucleus will decay is a constant, independent of time. This constant is called the decay constant and is denoted by λ, “lambda”. The radioactive decay of certain number of atoms (mass) is exponential in time.

Radioactive decay law: N = N.e-λt

The rate of nuclear decay is also measured in terms of half-lives. The half-life is the amount of time it takes for a given isotope to lose half of its radioactivity. If a radioisotope has a half-life of 14 days, half of its atoms will have decayed within 14 days. In 14 more days, half of that remaining half will decay, and so on. Half lives range from millionths of a second for highly radioactive fission products to billions of years for long-lived materials (such as naturally occurring uranium). Notice that short half lives go with large decay constants. Radioactive material with a short half life is much more radioactive (at the time of production) but will obviously lose its radioactivity rapidly. No matter how long or short the half life is, after seven half lives have passed, there is less than 1 percent of the initial activity remaining.

The radioactive decay law can be derived also for activity calculations or mass of radioactive material calculations:

(Number of nuclei) N = N.e-λt     (Activity) A = A.e-λt      (Mass) m = m.e-λt

, where N (number of particles) is the total number of particles in the sample, A (total activity) is the number of decays per unit time of a radioactive sample, m is the mass of remaining radioactive material.

Table of examples of half lives and decay constants.

Table of examples of half lives and decay constants. Notice that short half lives go with large decay constants. Radioactive material with a short half life is much more radioactive but will obviously lose its radioactivity rapidly.

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