Science & Technology

Science Made Simple: What Are Isotopes?

Artist rendering of the fundamental buildings of Deuterium atom.

A household of individuals typically consists of associated however not an identical people. Components have households as properly, generally known as isotopes. Isotopes are members of a household of a component that every one have the identical variety of protons however completely different numbers of neutrons.

The variety of protons in a nucleus determines the component’s atomic quantity on the Periodic Desk. For instance, carbon has six protons and is atomic quantity 6. Carbon happens naturally in three isotopes: carbon 12, which has 6 neutrons (plus 6 protons equals 12), carbon 13, which has 7 neutrons, and carbon 14, which has 8 neutrons. Each component has its personal variety of isotopes.

Hydrogen and its two naturally occurring isotopes, deuterium and tritium. All three have the identical variety of protons (labeled p+) however completely different numbers of neutrons (labeled n). Credit score: Picture courtesy of Wikimedia commons

The addition of even one neutron can dramatically change an isotope’s properties. Carbon-12 is steady, which means it by no means undergoes radioactive decay. Carbon-14 is unstable and undergoes radioactive decay with a half-life of about 5,730 years (which means that half of the fabric might be gone after 5,730 years). This decay means the quantity of carbon-14 in an object serves as a clock, exhibiting the item’s age in a course of referred to as “carbon relationship.”

Isotopes have distinctive properties, and these properties make them helpful in diagnostics and therapy purposes. They’re necessary in nuclear drugs, oil and fuel exploration, primary analysis, and nationwide safety.

Isotopes are wanted for analysis, commerce, medical diagnostics and therapy, and nationwide safety. Nevertheless, isotopes aren’t all the time accessible in adequate portions or at cheap costs. The DOE Isotope Program addresses this want. This system produces and distributes radioactive and steady isotopes which might be in brief provide, together with byproducts, surplus supplies, and associated isotope companies. This system additionally maintains the infrastructure required to supply and provide precedence isotope merchandise and associated companies. Lastly, it conducts analysis and growth on new and improved isotope manufacturing and processing methods.

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