Decay chain

In nuclear science, the decay chain refers to a series of radioactive decays of different radioactive decay products as a sequential series of transformations. It is also known as a "radioactive cascade". Most radioisotopes do not decay directly to a stable state, but rather undergo a series of decays until eventually a stable isotope is reached.

Decay stages are referred to by their relationship to previous or subsequent stages. A parent isotope is one that undergoes decay to form a daughter isotope. One example of this is uranium (atomic number 92) decaying into thorium (atomic number 90). The daughter isotope may be stable or it may decay to form a daughter isotope of its own. The daughter of a daughter isotope is sometimes called a granddaughter isotope.

The time it takes for a single parent atom to decay to an atom of its daughter isotope can vary widely, not only between different parent-daughter pairs, but also randomly between identical pairings of parent and daughter isotopes. The decay of each single atom occurs spontaneously, and the decay of an initial population of identical atoms over time t, follows a decaying exponential distribution, e−λt, where λ is called a decay constant. One of the properties of an isotope is its half-life, the time by which half of an initial number of identical parent radioisotopes have decayed to their daughters, which is inversely related to λ. Half-lives have been determined in laboratories for many radioisotopes (or radionuclides). These can range from nearly instantaneous (less than 10−21 seconds) to more than 1019 years.

The intermediate stages each emit the same amount of radioactivity as the original radioisotope (i.e. there is a one-to-one relationship between the numbers of decays in successive stages) but each stage releases a different quantity of energy. If and when equilibrium is achieved, each successive daughter isotope is present in direct proportion to its half-life; but since its activity is inversely proportional to its half-life, each nuclide in the decay chain finally contributes as many individual transformations as the head of the chain, though not the same energy. For example, uranium-238 is weakly radioactive, but pitchblende, a uranium ore, is 13 times more radioactive than the pure uranium metal because of the radium and other daughter isotopes it contains. Not only are unstable radium isotopes significant radioactivity emitters, but as the next stage in the decay chain they also generate radon, a heavy, inert, naturally occurring radioactive gas. Rock containing thorium and/or uranium (such as some granites) emits radon gas that can accumulate in enclosed places such as basements or underground mines.[1]

Quantity calculation with the Bateman-Function for 241Pu

The quantity of isotopes in the decay chains at a certain time are calculated with the Bateman equation.

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