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radioactive glass

“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war that we know about peace, more about killing that we know about living. ” 

-Omar N. Bradley

Types of Radioactive Decay

There are three main types of radioactive decay: alpha, beta, and gamma.

Let's pause here a minute to define "decay." When an element decays the parent element's nucleus changes - it will actually decay to turn into a different daughter element altogether! How is this possible? Because during radioactive decay the number of protons in the nucleus can change (I know, right?).

Alpha Radiation/Decay alpha particle

During Alpha decay an atom spits out two protons and two neutrons from its nucleus. This little bundle is called an "alpha particle."

Beta Radiation/Decay beta particle

Remember we said a neutron is a proton with an electron attached? In beta decay a neutron sends its electron packing, literally ejecting it from the nucleus at high speed. The result? That neutron turns into a proton!

Gamma Radiation/Decay gamma particle

Gamma rays (remember that term from when we studied the EMS?) is electromagnetic radiation similar to light. Gamma decay does not change the mass or charge of the atom from which it originates. Gamma is often emitted along with alpha or beta particle ejecton.

Comparison of Alpha, Beta and Gamma Radiation/Decay

The diagram below shows the difference between alpha, beta and gamma particles.

abg particles

The diagram below should make you think back to the cathode ray tube experiment - notice how the negatively charged beta particles are attracted to the (+) plate while the positively charged alpha particle is attracted to the (-) plate. Since gamma radiation has no charge its path does not bend.


The diagram below shows what materials can block each type of radiation. Notice it's easy to block alpha radiation (paper will do!) but tough to block gamma radiation (you'll need a lead vest).

ABG diagram

These resources will help you understand the different types of radioactive decay:

How do you write equations for alpha decay?

Fair warning - these reactions look more complicated than they are! If you can subtract 4, 2, 1 or 0 from whole numbers you can write basic nuclear equations.

Remember when an element spits out an alpha particle it loses two protons (changing the atomic number) and two neutrons (changing the isotope's mass number). Your job is to make sure all the mass numbers (top) and atomic numbers (bottom) add up.

Let's start with a non-chemistry example to prove this is a piece of cake (mmmm, cake!):

210 = 4 + ?

Not so bad, right? The ? = 206 In a nuclear equation for alpha decay you'd be half done! This is how you balance the top part of the equation. So let's finish...

84 = 2 + ?

Again, easy. The ? = 82. In solving a nuclear equation you're approaching the finish line! The 82 is the atomic number of the daughter element, so find element 82 in your trusty periodic table and you are done. This is how it looks as the full equation for the alpha decay of Polonium-210.

alpha decay equation

How do you write equations for beta decay?

Same idea and even easier since the mass number doesn't even change during alpha decay.

Remember when an element spits out a beta particle all it loses is one electron. It still changes the atomic number because what used to be a neutron is now an extra proton. Your job here is to make sure all the atomic numbers (bottom) add up.

Once again we'll start with a non-chemistry example to prove this is easy cheesy (mmmm, cheese!):

144 = 0 + ?

There's gotta be a catch, right? Too easy? Nope. The ? = 144. Remember the mass number doesn't change during beta decay.

50 = -1 + ?

The only trick here is remembering you're working with negative numbers, so the daughter will have a HIGHER atomic number than the parent (extra proton, remember?). This is how it looks as the full equation for the beta decay of Cerium-144.

beta decay equation

Practice your equation writing skills here! (Answers provided so you can check your answers) .

How much do you need to know about nuclear decay?