Ionizing radiation

Ionizing radiation (or ionising radiation), including nuclear radiation, consists of subatomic particles or electromagnetic waves that have sufficient energy to ionize atoms or molecules by detaching electrons from them.[1] Some particles can travel up to 99% of the speed of light, and the electromagnetic waves are on the high-energy portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Gamma rays, X-rays, and the higher energy ultraviolet part of the electromagnetic spectrum are ionizing radiation, whereas the lower energy ultraviolet, visible light, nearly all types of laser light, infrared, microwaves, and radio waves are non-ionizing radiation. The boundary between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation in the ultraviolet area is not sharply defined, as different molecules and atoms ionize at different energies. The energy of ionizing radiation starts between 10 electronvolts (eV) and 33 eV.

Typical ionizing subatomic particles include alpha particles, beta particles, and neutrons. These are typically created by radioactive decay, and almost all are energetic enough to ionize. There are also secondary cosmic particles produced after cosmic rays interact with Earth's atmosphere, including muons, mesons, and positrons.[2][3] Cosmic rays may also produce radioisotopes on Earth (for example, carbon-14), which in turn decay and emit ionizing radiation. Cosmic rays and the decay of radioactive isotopes are the primary sources of natural ionizing radiation on Earth, contributing to background radiation. Ionizing radiation is also generated artificially by X-ray tubes, particle accelerators, and nuclear fission.

Ionizing radiation is not immediately detectable by human senses, so instruments such as Geiger counters are used to detect and measure it. However, very high energy particles can produce visible effects on both organic and inorganic matter (e.g. water lighting in Cherenkov radiation) or humans (e.g. acute radiation syndrome).[4]

Ionizing radiation is used in a wide variety of fields such as medicine, nuclear power, research, and industrial manufacturing, but presents a health hazard if proper measures against excessive exposure are not taken. Exposure to ionizing radiation causes cell damage to living tissue and organ damage. In high acute doses, it will result in radiation burns and radiation sickness, and lower level doses over a protracted time can cause cancer.[5][6] The International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) issues guidance on ionizing radiation protection, and the effects of dose uptake on human health.

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