Questions Engineering

What happens during radioactive decay?


Nitika Kale

Always deliver more than expected

Radioactive decay is an automatic process in which an unstable atom (specifically atomic nucleus) releases energy in the form of radiation like alpha, beta, gamma rays, etc. to transform into a much stable nucleus.

Radioactive decay is an entirely random event. The atoms consisting of a large number of protons or neutrons or both are considered to be unstable. Such particles release those extra protons and neutrons in the form of radiation to attain overall stability.

Radioactive decay has the following parts:

Alpha Decay 

Alpha decay takes place in the relatively heavier nuclides. In this type of decline, the nucleus emits an alpha particle (which is mainly a helium particle). After the alpha decay, the nucleus transforms into a much stable core with mass number 4 less than the parent atom and with atomic number two less than the parent atom.

Alpha decay is the most common type of radioactive decay because of powerful nuclear binding energy and the relatively small mass of the alpha particle.

Alpha particles have an energy of about 5MeV and a speed of about 15x10^6 m/s. 

Alpha particles interact with other gaseous molecules owing to their large mass and relatively low velocity.

Alpha particles have relatively low velocity, and that is why their forward motion can be stopped by only a few centimeters of air.

Beta Decay 

In this type of radioactive decay, beta particles (fast moving electrons or positrons) are emitted from the unstable nucleus. During beta decay, few other particles like neutrino/anti-neutrino are emitted.

Neither the beta particle nor the associated particles (neutrino/anti-neutrino) exist within the nucleus from the beginning; they are generated just before the beta decay.

As compared to alpha particles, beta particles have relatively low mass but higher velocity.

Beta particles can be stopped via a sheet of aluminum etc.

 Gamma Decay

In this type of radioactive decay, radioactive radiations are emitted from an unstable atomic nucleus. Gamma radiation comprises of the shortest wavelength of electromagnetic waves, and as a result of this, they impart the highest photon energy.

Gamma rays have energy that varies from few kV to maximum of 8MeV.

Gamma rays are highly ionizing and are highly hazardous to biological life. They can easily penetrate through our body, causing severe damage.

Gamma rays can be stopped by a thick block of lead or concrete.

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