What is radioactive decay?

Every chemical element has one or more isotope, some of which are stable, and others that are unstable.

By   |  Published: 6th Aug 2020  6:32 pmUpdated: 6th Aug 2020  6:34 pm

Atomic elements can have different isotopes, which are different versions of an element that have the same number of protons, but different numbers of neutrons contained within the nucleus. Thus, the atomic mass of these isotopes will be different, as will some of their physical properties, but their chemical properties are generally the same.

Every chemical element has one or more isotope, some of which are stable, and others that are unstable. An atomic nucleus is considered stable when the forces holding the protons and neutrons together are stronger than the forces trying to drive them apart (strong atomic force vs. electrostatic repulsion).

The simplest example of this is hydrogen, which has two stable isotopes — protium (1 proton) and deuterium (known as “heavy hydrogen”, with 1 proton and 1 neutron). However, hydrogen also has an unstable naturally occurring isotope known as tritium, which has 1 proton and 2 neutrons. The instability of this radioisotope means that it wants to break down into a different, more stable form.

Atomic nuclei constantly seek stability, and achieve this through the process of radioactive decay. If there is too much energy within an atomic nucleus to remain together, then the nucleus will break down, losing at least some of the parts (nucleons) that make it unstable.

The original unstable nuclei will be called the “parent”, while the more stable nuclei that result are called the “daughters”. The daughters may still be radioactive (unstable) — though more stable than before — and could therefore undergo further decay.

Larger elements with more nucleons — namely any element with an atomic number above 83 — has an unstable nucleus and is therefore radioactive. However, the intensity of that radioactivity may vary wildly.

Polonium (Po-210), for example, is a rare and highly volatile radioisotope with no stable isotopes. It gives off an incredibly high-energy form of radiation during alpha decay — and actually glows blue! — making it one of the most radioactive elements. It decays relatively quickly though, and has a half-life of only 140 days, breaking down into lead (Pb-206) as the decay product.

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