Alpha decay
Overview
 

Alpha decay is a type of radioactive decay in which an atomic nucleus
Atomic nucleus
The nucleus is the very dense region consisting of protons and neutrons at the center of an atom. It was discovered in 1911, as a result of Ernest Rutherford's interpretation of the famous 1909 Rutherford experiment performed by Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden, under the direction of Rutherford. The...

 emits an alpha particle
Alpha particle
Alpha particles consist of two protons and two neutrons bound together into a particle identical to a helium nucleus, which is classically produced in the process of alpha decay, but may be produced also in other ways and given the same name...

 and thereby transforms (or 'decays') into an atom with a mass number
Mass number
The mass number , also called atomic mass number or nucleon number, is the total number of protons and neutrons in an atomic nucleus. Because protons and neutrons both are baryons, the mass number A is identical with the baryon number B as of the nucleus as of the whole atom or ion...

 4 less and atomic number
Atomic number
In chemistry and physics, the atomic number is the number of protons found in the nucleus of an atom and therefore identical to the charge number of the nucleus. It is conventionally represented by the symbol Z. The atomic number uniquely identifies a chemical element...

 2 less. For example:

→ +

which can also be written as:

→ + .

An alpha particle
Alpha particle
Alpha particles consist of two protons and two neutrons bound together into a particle identical to a helium nucleus, which is classically produced in the process of alpha decay, but may be produced also in other ways and given the same name...

 is the same as a helium-4
Helium-4
Helium-4 is a non-radioactive isotope of helium. It is by far the most abundant of the two naturally occurring isotopes of helium, making up about 99.99986% of the helium on earth. Its nucleus is the same as an alpha particle, consisting of two protons and two neutrons. Alpha decay of heavy...

 nucleus
Atomic nucleus
The nucleus is the very dense region consisting of protons and neutrons at the center of an atom. It was discovered in 1911, as a result of Ernest Rutherford's interpretation of the famous 1909 Rutherford experiment performed by Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden, under the direction of Rutherford. The...

, which has mass number
Mass number
The mass number , also called atomic mass number or nucleon number, is the total number of protons and neutrons in an atomic nucleus. Because protons and neutrons both are baryons, the mass number A is identical with the baryon number B as of the nucleus as of the whole atom or ion...

 4 and atomic number
Atomic number
In chemistry and physics, the atomic number is the number of protons found in the nucleus of an atom and therefore identical to the charge number of the nucleus. It is conventionally represented by the symbol Z. The atomic number uniquely identifies a chemical element...

 2.

Alpha decay is by far the most common form of cluster decay
Cluster decay
Cluster decay is a type of nuclear decay in which a parent atomic nucleus with A nucleons and Z protons emits a cluster of Ne neutrons and Ze protons heavier than an alpha particle but lighter than a typical binary fission fragment Cluster decay (also named heavy particle radioactivity or heavy...

 where the parent atom
Atom
The atom is a basic unit of matter that consists of a dense central nucleus surrounded by a cloud of negatively charged electrons. The atomic nucleus contains a mix of positively charged protons and electrically neutral neutrons...

 ejects a defined daughter
Decay product
In nuclear physics, a decay product is the remaining nuclide left over from radioactive decay. Radioactive decay often involves a sequence of steps...

 collection of nucleon
Nucleon
In physics, a nucleon is a collective name for two particles: the neutron and the proton. These are the two constituents of the atomic nucleus. Until the 1960s, the nucleons were thought to be elementary particles...

s, leaving another defined product behind (in nuclear fission
Nuclear fission
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts , often producing free neutrons and photons , and releasing a tremendous amount of energy...

, a number of different pairs of daughters of approximately equal size are formed).
Encyclopedia

Alpha decay is a type of radioactive decay in which an atomic nucleus
Atomic nucleus
The nucleus is the very dense region consisting of protons and neutrons at the center of an atom. It was discovered in 1911, as a result of Ernest Rutherford's interpretation of the famous 1909 Rutherford experiment performed by Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden, under the direction of Rutherford. The...

 emits an alpha particle
Alpha particle
Alpha particles consist of two protons and two neutrons bound together into a particle identical to a helium nucleus, which is classically produced in the process of alpha decay, but may be produced also in other ways and given the same name...

 and thereby transforms (or 'decays') into an atom with a mass number
Mass number
The mass number , also called atomic mass number or nucleon number, is the total number of protons and neutrons in an atomic nucleus. Because protons and neutrons both are baryons, the mass number A is identical with the baryon number B as of the nucleus as of the whole atom or ion...

 4 less and atomic number
Atomic number
In chemistry and physics, the atomic number is the number of protons found in the nucleus of an atom and therefore identical to the charge number of the nucleus. It is conventionally represented by the symbol Z. The atomic number uniquely identifies a chemical element...

 2 less. For example:

→ +

which can also be written as:

→ + .

An alpha particle
Alpha particle
Alpha particles consist of two protons and two neutrons bound together into a particle identical to a helium nucleus, which is classically produced in the process of alpha decay, but may be produced also in other ways and given the same name...

 is the same as a helium-4
Helium-4
Helium-4 is a non-radioactive isotope of helium. It is by far the most abundant of the two naturally occurring isotopes of helium, making up about 99.99986% of the helium on earth. Its nucleus is the same as an alpha particle, consisting of two protons and two neutrons. Alpha decay of heavy...

 nucleus
Atomic nucleus
The nucleus is the very dense region consisting of protons and neutrons at the center of an atom. It was discovered in 1911, as a result of Ernest Rutherford's interpretation of the famous 1909 Rutherford experiment performed by Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden, under the direction of Rutherford. The...

, which has mass number
Mass number
The mass number , also called atomic mass number or nucleon number, is the total number of protons and neutrons in an atomic nucleus. Because protons and neutrons both are baryons, the mass number A is identical with the baryon number B as of the nucleus as of the whole atom or ion...

 4 and atomic number
Atomic number
In chemistry and physics, the atomic number is the number of protons found in the nucleus of an atom and therefore identical to the charge number of the nucleus. It is conventionally represented by the symbol Z. The atomic number uniquely identifies a chemical element...

 2.

Alpha decay is by far the most common form of cluster decay
Cluster decay
Cluster decay is a type of nuclear decay in which a parent atomic nucleus with A nucleons and Z protons emits a cluster of Ne neutrons and Ze protons heavier than an alpha particle but lighter than a typical binary fission fragment Cluster decay (also named heavy particle radioactivity or heavy...

 where the parent atom
Atom
The atom is a basic unit of matter that consists of a dense central nucleus surrounded by a cloud of negatively charged electrons. The atomic nucleus contains a mix of positively charged protons and electrically neutral neutrons...

 ejects a defined daughter
Decay product
In nuclear physics, a decay product is the remaining nuclide left over from radioactive decay. Radioactive decay often involves a sequence of steps...

 collection of nucleon
Nucleon
In physics, a nucleon is a collective name for two particles: the neutron and the proton. These are the two constituents of the atomic nucleus. Until the 1960s, the nucleons were thought to be elementary particles...

s, leaving another defined product behind (in nuclear fission
Nuclear fission
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts , often producing free neutrons and photons , and releasing a tremendous amount of energy...

, a number of different pairs of daughters of approximately equal size are formed). Alpha decay is the most likely cluster decay because of the combined extremely high binding energy
Binding energy
Binding energy is the mechanical energy required to disassemble a whole into separate parts. A bound system typically has a lower potential energy than its constituent parts; this is what keeps the system together—often this means that energy is released upon the creation of a bound state...

 and relatively small mass of the helium-4 product nucleus (the alpha particle).

Alpha decay, like other cluster decays, is fundamentally a quantum tunneling process. Unlike beta decay
Beta decay
In nuclear physics, beta decay is a type of radioactive decay in which a beta particle is emitted from an atom. There are two types of beta decay: beta minus and beta plus. In the case of beta decay that produces an electron emission, it is referred to as beta minus , while in the case of a...

, alpha decay is governed by the interplay between the nuclear force
Nuclear force
The nuclear force is the force between two or more nucleons. It is responsible for binding of protons and neutrons into atomic nuclei. The energy released causes the masses of nuclei to be less than the total mass of the protons and neutrons which form them...

 and the electromagnetic force.

Alpha decay typically occurs in the heaviest nuclides. In theory it can occur only in nuclei somewhat heavier than nickel (element 28), where overall binding energy
Binding energy
Binding energy is the mechanical energy required to disassemble a whole into separate parts. A bound system typically has a lower potential energy than its constituent parts; this is what keeps the system together—often this means that energy is released upon the creation of a bound state...

 per nucleon is no longer a minimum, and the nuclides are therefore unstable toward spontaneous fission-type processes. In practice, this mode of decay has only been observed in nuclides considerably heavier than nickel, with the lightest known alpha emitter being the lightest isotope
Isotope
Isotopes are variants of atoms of a particular chemical element, which have differing numbers of neutrons. Atoms of a particular element by definition must contain the same number of protons but may have a distinct number of neutrons which differs from atom to atom, without changing the designation...

s (mass numbers 106–110) of tellurium (element 52).

Alpha particles have a typical kinetic energy of 5 MeV (that is, ≈ 0.13% of their total energy, i.e. 110 TJ/kg) and a speed of 15,000 km/s. This corresponds to a speed of around 0.05 c
Speed of light
The speed of light in vacuum, usually denoted by c, is a physical constant important in many areas of physics. Its value is 299,792,458 metres per second, a figure that is exact since the length of the metre is defined from this constant and the international standard for time...

. There is surprisingly small variation around this energy, due to the heavy dependence of the half-life of this process on the energy produced (see equations in the Geiger–Nuttall law).

Because of their relatively large mass, +2 electric charge
Electric charge
Electric charge is a physical property of matter that causes it to experience a force when near other electrically charged matter. Electric charge comes in two types, called positive and negative. Two positively charged substances, or objects, experience a mutual repulsive force, as do two...

 and relatively low velocity, alpha particles are very likely to interact with other atoms and lose their energy, so their forward motion is effectively stopped within a few centimeters of air.

Most of the helium
Helium
Helium is the chemical element with atomic number 2 and an atomic weight of 4.002602, which is represented by the symbol He. It is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert, monatomic gas that heads the noble gas group in the periodic table...

 produced on Earth
Earth
Earth is the third planet from the Sun, and the densest and fifth-largest of the eight planets in the Solar System. It is also the largest of the Solar System's four terrestrial planets...

 (approximately 99% of it) is the result of the alpha decay of underground deposits of minerals containing uranium
Uranium
Uranium is a silvery-white metallic chemical element in the actinide series of the periodic table, with atomic number 92. It is assigned the chemical symbol U. A uranium atom has 92 protons and 92 electrons, of which 6 are valence electrons...

 or thorium
Thorium
Thorium is a natural radioactive chemical element with the symbol Th and atomic number 90. It was discovered in 1828 and named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder....

. The helium is brought to the surface as a byproduct of natural gas
Natural gas
Natural gas is a naturally occurring gas mixture consisting primarily of methane, typically with 0–20% higher hydrocarbons . It is found associated with other hydrocarbon fuel, in coal beds, as methane clathrates, and is an important fuel source and a major feedstock for fertilizers.Most natural...

 production.

History

Alpha particles were first described in the investigations of radioactivity by Ernest Rutherford
Ernest Rutherford
Ernest Rutherford, 1st Baron Rutherford of Nelson OM, FRS was a New Zealand-born British chemist and physicist who became known as the father of nuclear physics...

 in 1899, and by 1907 they were identified as He2+ ions. For more details of this early work, see Alpha particle#History of discovery and use.

By 1928, George Gamow
George Gamow
George Gamow , born Georgiy Antonovich Gamov , was a Russian-born theoretical physicist and cosmologist. He discovered alpha decay via quantum tunneling and worked on radioactive decay of the atomic nucleus, star formation, stellar nucleosynthesis, Big Bang nucleosynthesis, cosmic microwave...

 had solved the theory of the alpha decay via tunneling. The alpha particle is trapped in a potential well
Potential well
A potential well is the region surrounding a local minimum of potential energy. Energy captured in a potential well is unable to convert to another type of energy because it is captured in the local minimum of a potential well...

 by the nucleus. Classically, it is forbidden to escape, but according to the then newly discovered principles of quantum mechanics
Quantum mechanics
Quantum mechanics, also known as quantum physics or quantum theory, is a branch of physics providing a mathematical description of much of the dual particle-like and wave-like behavior and interactions of energy and matter. It departs from classical mechanics primarily at the atomic and subatomic...

, it has a tiny (but non-zero) probability of "tunneling
Quantum tunnelling
Quantum tunnelling refers to the quantum mechanical phenomenon where a particle tunnels through a barrier that it classically could not surmount. This plays an essential role in several physical phenomena, such as the nuclear fusion that occurs in main sequence stars like the sun, and has important...

" through the barrier and appearing on the other side to escape the nucleus. Gamow solved a model potential for the nucleus and derived from first principles a relationship between the half-life
Half-life
Half-life, abbreviated t½, is the period of time it takes for the amount of a substance undergoing decay to decrease by half. The name was originally used to describe a characteristic of unstable atoms , but it may apply to any quantity which follows a set-rate decay.The original term, dating to...

 of the decay, and the energy of the emission, which had been previously discovered empirically, and was known as the Geiger–Nuttall law.

Uses

Americium-241, an alpha emitter, is used in smoke detector
Smoke detector
A smoke detector is a device that detects smoke, typically as an indicator of fire. Commercial, industrial, and mass residential devices issue a signal to a fire alarm system, while household detectors, known as smoke alarms, generally issue a local audible and/or visual alarm from the detector...

s. The alpha particles ionize
Ionization
Ionization is the process of converting an atom or molecule into an ion by adding or removing charged particles such as electrons or other ions. This is often confused with dissociation. A substance may dissociate without necessarily producing ions. As an example, the molecules of table sugar...

 air between a small gap. A small current
Electric current
Electric current is a flow of electric charge through a medium.This charge is typically carried by moving electrons in a conductor such as wire...

 is passed through that ionized air. Smoke particles from fire that enter the air gap reduce the current flow, sounding the alarm.

Alpha decay can provide a safe power source for radioisotope thermoelectric generator
Radioisotope thermoelectric generator
A radioisotope thermoelectric generator is an electrical generator that obtains its power from radioactive decay. In such a device, the heat released by the decay of a suitable radioactive material is converted into electricity by the Seebeck effect using an array of thermocouples.RTGs can be...

s used for space probe
Space probe
A robotic spacecraft is a spacecraft with no humans on board, that is usually under telerobotic control. A robotic spacecraft designed to make scientific research measurements is often called a space probe. Many space missions are more suited to telerobotic rather than crewed operation, due to...

s and artificial heart pacemakers
Artificial pacemaker
A pacemaker is a medical device that uses electrical impulses, delivered by electrodes contacting the heart muscles, to regulate the beating of the heart...

. Alpha decay is much more easily shielded against than other forms of radioactive decay. Plutonium-238
Plutonium-238
-External links:**...

, for example, requires only 2.5 millimetres of lead
Lead
Lead is a main-group element in the carbon group with the symbol Pb and atomic number 82. Lead is a soft, malleable poor metal. It is also counted as one of the heavy metals. Metallic lead has a bluish-white color after being freshly cut, but it soon tarnishes to a dull grayish color when exposed...

 shielding to protect against unwanted radiation.

Static eliminators typically use polonium-210, an alpha emitter, to ionize air, allowing the 'static cling' to more rapidly dissipate.

Toxicity

Being relatively heavy and positively charged, alpha particles tend to have a very short mean free path
Mean free path
In physics, the mean free path is the average distance covered by a moving particle between successive impacts which modify its direction or energy or other particle properties.-Derivation:...

, and quickly lose kinetic energy within a short distance of their source. This results in several MeV
MEV
MeV and meV are multiples and submultiples of the electron volt unit referring to 1,000,000 eV and 0.001 eV, respectively.Mev or MEV may refer to:In entertainment:* Musica Elettronica Viva, an Italian musical group...

 being deposited in a relatively small volume of material. This increases the chance of cellular damage in cases of internal contamination. In general, external alpha radiation is not harmful since alpha particles are effectively shielded by a few centimeters of air, a piece of paper, or the thin layer of dead skin cells. Even touching an alpha source is usually not harmful, though many alpha sources also are accompanied by beta-emitting
Beta decay
In nuclear physics, beta decay is a type of radioactive decay in which a beta particle is emitted from an atom. There are two types of beta decay: beta minus and beta plus. In the case of beta decay that produces an electron emission, it is referred to as beta minus , while in the case of a...

 radio daughters, and alpha emission is also accompanied by gamma photon emission. If substances emitting alpha particles are ingested, inhaled, injected or introduced through the skin, then it could result in a measurable dose
Equivalent dose
The equivalent absorbed radiation dose, usually shortened to equivalent dose, is a computed average measure of the radiation absorbed by a fixed mass of biological tissue, that attempts to account for the different biological damage potential of different types of ionizing radiation...

.

The relative biological effectiveness
Relative biological effectiveness
In radiology, the relative biological effectiveness is a number that expresses the relative amount of damage that a fixed amount of ionizing radiation of a given type can inflict on biological tissues...

 (RBE) of alpha radiation is higher than that of beta or gamma radiation. RBE quantifies the ability of radiation to cause certain biological effects, notably either cancer
Cancer
Cancer , known medically as a malignant neoplasm, is a large group of different diseases, all involving unregulated cell growth. In cancer, cells divide and grow uncontrollably, forming malignant tumors, and invade nearby parts of the body. The cancer may also spread to more distant parts of the...

 or cell-death
Necrosis
Necrosis is the premature death of cells in living tissue. Necrosis is caused by factors external to the cell or tissue, such as infection, toxins, or trauma. This is in contrast to apoptosis, which is a naturally occurring cause of cellular death...

, for equivalent radiation exposure. The higher value for alpha radiation is generally attributable to the high linear energy transfer
Linear energy transfer
Linear energy transfer is a measure of the energy transferred to material as an ionizing particle travels through it. Typically, this measure is used to quantify the effects of ionizing radiation on biological specimens or electronic devices....

 (LET) coefficient, which is about one ionization of a chemical bond for every angstrom
Ångström
The angstrom or ångström, is a unit of length equal to 1/10,000,000,000 of a meter . Its symbol is the Swedish letter Å....

 of travel by the alpha particle. The RBE has been set at the value of 20 for alpha radiation by various government regulations. The RBE is set at 10 for neutron
Neutron
The neutron is a subatomic hadron particle which has the symbol or , no net electric charge and a mass slightly larger than that of a proton. With the exception of hydrogen, nuclei of atoms consist of protons and neutrons, which are therefore collectively referred to as nucleons. The number of...

 irradiation, and at 1 for beta radiation
Beta decay
In nuclear physics, beta decay is a type of radioactive decay in which a beta particle is emitted from an atom. There are two types of beta decay: beta minus and beta plus. In the case of beta decay that produces an electron emission, it is referred to as beta minus , while in the case of a...

 and ionizing photons.

However, another component of alpha radiation is the recoil
Recoil
Recoil is the backward momentum of a gun when it is discharged. In technical terms, the recoil caused by the gun exactly balances the forward momentum of the projectile and exhaust gasses, according to Newton's third law...

 of the parent nucleus, termed alpha recoil. Due to the conservation of momentum requiring the parent nucleus to recoil, the effect acts much like the 'kick' of a rifle butt when a bullet goes in the opposite direction. This gives a significant amount of energy to the recoiling nucleus, which also causes ionization damage. The total energy of the recoil nucleus is readily calculable, and is roughly the weight of the alpha (4 u
Atomic mass unit
The unified atomic mass unit or dalton is a unit that is used for indicating mass on an atomic or molecular scale. It is defined as one twelfth of the rest mass of an unbound neutral atom of carbon-12 in its nuclear and electronic ground state, and has a value of...

) divided by the weight of the parent (typically about 200 u) times the total energy of the alpha. By some estimates, this might account for most of the internal radiation damage, as the recoil nuclei are typically heavy metals
Heavy metals
A heavy metal is a member of a loosely-defined subset of elements that exhibit metallic properties. It mainly includes the transition metals, some metalloids, lanthanides, and actinides. Many different definitions have been proposed—some based on density, some on atomic number or atomic weight,...

 which preferentially collect on the chromosomes. In some studies, this has resulted in a RBE approaching 1,000 instead of the value used in governmental regulations.

The largest natural contributor to public radiation dose is radon
Radon
Radon is a chemical element with symbol Rn and atomic number 86. It is a radioactive, colorless, odorless, tasteless noble gas, occurring naturally as the decay product of uranium or thorium. Its most stable isotope, 222Rn, has a half-life of 3.8 days...

, a naturally occurring, radioactive gas found in soil and rock. If the gas is inhaled, some of the radon particles may attach to the inner lining of the lung. These particles continue to decay, emitting alpha particles which can damage cells in the lung tissue. The death of Marie Curie
Marie Curie
Marie Skłodowska-Curie was a physicist and chemist famous for her pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first person honored with two Nobel Prizes—in physics and chemistry...

 at age 66 from leukemia
Leukemia
Leukemia or leukaemia is a type of cancer of the blood or bone marrow characterized by an abnormal increase of immature white blood cells called "blasts". Leukemia is a broad term covering a spectrum of diseases...

 was probably caused by prolonged exposure to high doses of ionizing radiation, but it is not clear if this was due to alpha radiation or X-rays. Curie worked extensively with radium, which decays into radon, along with other radioactive materials that emit beta
Beta decay
In nuclear physics, beta decay is a type of radioactive decay in which a beta particle is emitted from an atom. There are two types of beta decay: beta minus and beta plus. In the case of beta decay that produces an electron emission, it is referred to as beta minus , while in the case of a...

 and gamma ray
Gamma ray
Gamma radiation, also known as gamma rays or hyphenated as gamma-rays and denoted as γ, is electromagnetic radiation of high frequency . Gamma rays are usually naturally produced on Earth by decay of high energy states in atomic nuclei...

s. However, Curie also worked with unshielded X-ray tubes during World War I, and analysis of her skeleton during a reburial showed a relatively low level of radioisotope burden.

Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko
Alexander Litvinenko
Alexander Valterovich Litvinenko was an officer who served in the Soviet KGB and its Russian successor, the Federal Security Service ....

's 2006 murder by radiation poisoning
Radiation poisoning
Acute radiation syndrome also known as radiation poisoning, radiation sickness or radiation toxicity, is a constellation of health effects which occur within several months of exposure to high amounts of ionizing radiation...

 is thought to have been carried out with polonium-210, an alpha emitter.

See also

  • Alpha particle
    Alpha particle
    Alpha particles consist of two protons and two neutrons bound together into a particle identical to a helium nucleus, which is classically produced in the process of alpha decay, but may be produced also in other ways and given the same name...

  • Beta decay
    Beta decay
    In nuclear physics, beta decay is a type of radioactive decay in which a beta particle is emitted from an atom. There are two types of beta decay: beta minus and beta plus. In the case of beta decay that produces an electron emission, it is referred to as beta minus , while in the case of a...



Alpha Particles are known for their low penetrating ability and therefore are not considered very dangerous as the radiation only travels a few centimetres in air.

External links

The source of this article is wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The text of this article is licensed under the GFDL.
 
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