Radioactive decay

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 (α-decay), beta decay (β-decay), and gamma decay (γ-decay), all of which involve emitting one or more particles. The weak force is the mechanism that is responsible for beta decay, while the other two are governed by the electromagnetism and nuclear force.[1] A fourth type of common decay is electron capture, in which an unstable nucleus captures an inner electron from one of the electron shells. The loss of that electron from the shell results in a cascade of electrons dropping down to that lower shell, resulting in emission of discrete X-rays from the transitions. A common example is iodine-125 commonly used in medical settings.

Alpha decay by a nucleus emits an alpha particle made of helium's nucleus

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;
    1. beta-minus decay, when the nucleus emits an electron and an antineutrino in a process that changes a neutron to a proton.
    2. beta-plus decay, when the nucleus emits a positron and a neutrino in a process that changes a proton to a neutron, also known as positron emission.
  • In gamma decay a radioactive nucleus first decays by the emission of an alpha or beta 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, extremely neutron-rich nuclei, formed due to other types of decay or after many successive neutron captures, 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. A neutrino and a gamma ray are subsequently emitted.
  • In cluster decay and nuclear fission, a nucleus heavier than an alpha particle is emitted.

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, 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 found on Earth such as radium-226 and radon-222, 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.)


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