What Are Radioisotopes?

Many of the chemical elements have a number of isotopes. The isotopes of an element have the same number of protons in their atoms (atomic number) but different masses due to different numbers of neutrons. In an atom in the neutral state, the number of external electrons also equals the atomic number. These electrons determine the chemistry of the atom. The atomic mass is the sum of the protons and neutrons. There are 82 stable elements and about 275 stable isotopes of these elements.

When a combination of neutrons and protons, which does not already exist in nature, is produced artificially, the atom will be unstable and is called a radioactive isotope or radioisotope. There are also a number of unstable natural isotopes arising from the decay of primordial uranium and thorium. Overall there are some 1800 radioisotopes.

At present there are up to 200 radioisotopes used on a regular basis, and most must be produced artificially.

Radioisotopes can be manufactured in several ways. The most common is by neutron activation in a nuclear reactor. This involves the capture of a neutron by the nucleus of an atom resulting in an excess of neutrons (neutron rich).

Some radioisotopes are manufactured in a cyclotron in which protons are introduced to the nucleus resulting in a deficiency of neutrons (proton rich).

The nucleus of a radioisotope usually becomes stable by emitting an alpha and/or beta particle. These particles may be accompanied by the emission of energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation known as gamma rays. This process is known as radioactive decay.

Radioisotopes have very useful properties: radioactive emissions are easily detected and can be tracked until they disappear leaving no trace. Alpha, beta and gamma radiation, like x-rays, can penetrate seemingly solid objects, but are gradually absorbed by them. The extent of penetration depends upon several factors including the energy of the radiation, the mass of the particle and the density of the solid. These properties lead to many applications for radioisotopes in the scientific, medical, forensic and industrial fields.

Sources:
ANSTO
ANA 2001 conference papers.
Lowenthal & Airey 2001, Practical Applications of Radioisotopes and Radiation, Cambridge UP.

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