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3.1.1. All nuclei with more than 83 protons are unstable.
Elements with 83 protons or fewer may also have unstable nuclei,
depending on the ratio of neutrons to protons.
If number of neutrons is plotted against number of protons for stable
nuclei, a characteristic graph is obtained (FIG. 3.1.).

The plot produces a band of stable nuclei called the band of

stability. A section of the band is shown in more detail at element
34, which has six stable nuclei.

Elements which lie outside the band undergo radioactive decay.

This produces a new nucleus which may or may not be radioactive
itself. The process continues until a stable nucleus is formed. This
can be seen more clearly by understanding nature of three main
types of radiation.



3.2.1. Nature of radiation: This is the loss by an unstable

nucleus of two protons and two neutrons as a single -particle. An
-particle is therefore a helium nucleus:

Note that the ratio of neutrons:protons changes because they are

removed in a different ratio from that which exists in the parent
However, the Thallium nucleus produced by the decay is still
unstable and it must undergo the second type of radiation ( )
before a stable nucleus results.
3.2.2. Nature of radiation: When -radiation occurs, the ratio of
neutrons:protons is reduced because a neutron changes into a
proton. At the same time an electron is produced, and this is lost
from the nucleus as a, so-called, -particle:

3.2.3. Nature of -radiation: During - and -decay, excess

energy may be released as high frequency electromagnetic
radiation known as -radiation.
3.3.1. Up to element 82, nuclei which have too high a ratio of
neutrons:protons undergo -radiation, but not -radiation. Above
82, elements with too high a ratio can undergo either - or radiation.
Note also, that elements with too low a ratio of neutrons:protons
undergo a different type of decay in which a proton is converted into
a neutron, and a positron is released:

However, such nuclei are not naturally occuring, but they may be
produced by nuclear reactions.
3.4.1. Properties of



-, and

i) Nature: Fast moving helium nuclei, thus positively charged.

ii) Behaviour in an electric field: Deflected towards the negative
iii) Behaviour in a magnetic field: Deflected according to
Fleming's left hand rule (FIG. 3.5.):

Note that the direction of flow of the

flow of conventional current.

-particles = the direction of

iv) Ionising power: -particles have a powerful ionising effect on

any gases they pass through.
v) Penetrating power:
a sheet of paper.
3.4.2. Properties of

-radiation is absorbed by 7cm of air or by


i) Nature: Fast moving electrons, thus negatively charged.

ii) Behaviour in an electric field: Deflected towards the positive

plate, and deflected to a greater extent than -particles owing to
the low mass of an electron.
iii) Behaviour in a magnetic field: Deflected according to
Fleming's left hand rule, and thus in the opposite direction to
radiation, as well as to a greater extent.

iv) Ionising power: -particles are less ionising than a-pariticles as

predictable from their lower mass and lower kinetic energy.
v) Penetrating power: -radiation can travel a few metres
through air, and through thin sheets of metal. The denser the metal,
the thinner the sheet that can be penetrated.
3.4.3. Properties of


i) Nature: High frequency electromagnetic radiation.

ii) Behaviour in an electric field: Unaffected.
iii) Behaviour in a magnetic field: Unaffected.
iv) Ionising power: Weakly ionising.
v) Penetrating power: -radiation can pass through several
kilometers of air through up to 15cm of lead.
3.5.1. Radioactive elements decay according to first order
kinetics (section 8.1.): the rate is proportional to the number of
radioactive atoms present, and the half-life is constant (section
9.1.2. and table 9.1.).
In this context, half-life is the time taken for half the original
number of radioactive atoms to disintegrate. During this period, the
intensity of radiation will obviously fall to half its original value.
3.5.2. An equation: If you wish to remember an equation
describing the rate of radioactive decay, remember this one:

You may have the misfortune of encountering such a mathematical
manoeuvre. Hopefully, your examiners will not require you to take
part in one.
3.6.1. Carbon dating: The concentration of radioactive 14carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere is assumed to have been constant
throughout history (about 1 molecule in 10,000).
During their lifetime, living organisms absorb radioactive carbon,
either during photosynthesis (plants) or indirectly via feeding
(animals) on other living organisms. It is therefore assumed that
throughout history the proportion of radioactive to non-radioactive
carbon in living organisms has been constant.

When a living organism dies, it stops absorbing radioactive carbon

and the radioactive carbon decays with a half-life of 5570 years. By
measuring the ratio of radioactive to non-radioactive carbon in
material derived from living organisms, it is therefore possible to
estimate its age since death.
3.6.2. Tracers and labelling: The fate of a molecule in a living
organism can be traced by labelling the molecule with a radioactive
isotope. In this method, one atom in each of the molecules to be
traced is replaced with a radioactive isotope.
For example, a particular carbon atom in each molecule of a sample
of glucose can be replaced by14carbon. (In fact, replacement is not
100%.) If the glucose is fed to an organism, the fate of the
glucose 14carbon atom can be traced by detecting and locating
the -radiation. This can provide information about the types of
molecule produced from the glucose, and the location of those
molecules within the organism and its cells.
However, labelling is not exclusive to biochemistry and medicine.
For example, by replacing the oxygen atoms in an ester
with 18oxygen, it is possible to determine which bond is broken
during ester hydrolysis (section 22.3.6.i.).
1) Account for the different behaviour of


-, and -radiation in

i) an electric field, ii) a magnetic field.

2) Comment on the following statements:
i) Isotopes are radioactive atoms of an element.
ii) Half-life is half the time taken for a sample of a radioactive
element to decay totally.
iii) There is more similarity between -radiation and light, than there
is between -radiation and -radiation.

3) Fill in the missing data (indicated by question marks) in the

following schemes. You will need a periodic table to identify the
unamed elements.

Will the final nucleus at the end of each chain be stable?
4) How valid are the assumptions on which carbon dating is based?
(The 14carbon isotope is produced in the atmosphere by the
bombardment of nitrogen by cosmic rays.)
5) How would you use 18oxygen to determine which bond is broken
during ester hydrolysis?