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Radioactivity and the Decay of Nuclei

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Radioactivity is a property of a number of elements in the periodic table where their nuclei break down and release particles such as alpha, beta and gamma particles.

Radioactivity is a property of a number of elements in the periodic table particularly larger elements past uranium. These particles are broken own into smaller elements but also often produce ionising radiation. Ionising radiation is called as such as when it comes into contact with another atom or molecule it can cause the loss of electrons creating ions.


This occurs when an atom begins to break down and gives off radiation in the form of alpha beta or gamma particles. Alpha radiation is when a helium nucleus is given off, two protons and neutrons. They are slow moving and can be stopped by the skin and small amounts of air/paper but are highly ionising. Beta particles are faster moving and are comprised of an electron, they can be stopped by sheets of metal and are only moderately ionising. Gamma waves are not treated as particles, instead they are waves of energy. Gamma waves can only be stopped by lead and concrete and can travel far distances, however they are weakly ionising.


Radioactive decay is the breakdown of the parent nucleus to produce two daughter nuclei. When this break down occurs very often alpha beta and gamma decay are produced. Uranium and thorium are the two best known examples of radioactive nuclei naturally occurring in the earth’s crust in compounds. This radioactive decay can be harnessed in a nuclear reactor to generate heat energy which can be harnessed to heat water and generate steam for electricity production.


Radioactive decay is linked to the concept of half life. Elements that are decay products exist before breaking down further into more stable elements. The term half life is defined as the time required for exactly half of the elements to decay on average. Some elements have long half lives for example Uranium has a half life of 4.5 billion years making it very dangerous and difficult to store. However the synthetic element Seaborgium has a half life of 2.4 minutes. These short half lives make synthetic elements very difficult to study due to their short existence and rapid decay.


A large number of later discovered elements in the periodic table in the Actinoid series were discovered using particle accelerators. Large nucleuses are combined together to create elements with a large mass, these are known as synthetic elements. These do not occur naturally but are artificial. The first example of this was Curium which was synthesised in the bombardment of plutonium using alpha particles. The work of Seaborg and Ghiorso between 1952 to the late 70’s involved the use of detecting radioactive debris from the detonation of atomic bombs. During the Cold War teams from the Soviet Union and the US were competing to discover new elements using particle accelerators.


Terms in section
Corpuscularism

Corpuscularism was a theory proposed by Descartes that all matter was composed of tiny particles.

Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes was a famous mathematician and philosopher of the 16th century who hypothesised the theory of corpuscularism about the atom

Luster

Luster is a term for a reflective surface that reflects light giving a shiny appearance.

Semi conductors

Semi conductors is a term to describe metalloids that are able to conduct a current when electrical energy is applied due to the movement of electrons but the conductivity measurements are not as high as metals due to fewer electrons to carry a charge or a less ordered structure.

Ionic compound

An ionic compound is a bond that forms between metals and non metals to form a large ionic lattice

Nuclear Fusion

Nuclear fusion is a process which occurs in. the sun. Hydrogen atoms under a lot of heat and pressure are forced together to make a larger atom of helium

Uncertainty Principle

Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is used to describe the relationship between the momentum and position of an electron. Where by if the exact position of the electron is known the momentum will be uncertain.

Heisenberg

Werner Heisenberg was a German physicist who was a pioneer in the field of quantum mechanics. He devised the principle of uncertainty relating to the momentum and position of an electron.

Lobes

Lobes refers to the shape of electron waves and the area of highest probability of where that electron as a particle would be found.

Pauli Exclusion principle

The Pauli Exclusion refers to the theory that each electron can only have a unique set of the 4 quantum numbers and no two electrons can have the same quantum numbers

Quantum Numbers

Quantum numbers is a term used to describe the assigning of numbers to electrons as a mathematical function to describe their momentum and energy.

Bohr Model

The Bohr model refers to the treatment of electrons as particles that orbit the nucleus.

Quantum Mechanics

The term quantum mechanics refers to energy levels and the theoretical area of physics and chemistry where mathematics is used to explain the behaviour of subatomic particles.

Trough

A trough is the lowest point on a transverse wave.

Peak

A peak is the highest point on a transverse wave.

Vibrational Modes

Vibrational modes is a term used to describe the constant motion in a molecule. Usually these are vibrations, rotations and translations.

Erwin Schrodinger

Erwin Schrodinger was an Austrian physicist who used mathematical models to enhance the Bohr model of the electron and created an equation to predicted the likelihood of finding an electron in a given position.

Alkali Metal

The alkali metals, found in group 1 of the periodic table (formally known as group IA), are so reactive that they are generally found in nature combined with other elements. The alkali metals are shiny, soft, highly reactive metals at standard temperature and pressure.

Alkaline Earth Metals

Alkaline earth metals is the second most reactive group of elements in the periodic table. They are found in group 2 of the periodic table (formally known as group IIA).

Unknown Elements

Unknown elements (or transactinides) are the heaviest elements of the periodic table. These are meitnerium (Mt, atomic number 109), darmstadtium (Ds, atomic number 110), roentgenium (Rg, atomic number 111), nihonium (Nh, atomic number 113), moscovium (Mc, atomic number 115), livermorium (Lv, atomic number 116) and tennessine (Ts, atomic number 117).

Post-Transitional Metal

The post-transition metals are the ones found between the transition metals (to the left) and the metalloids (to the right). They include aluminium (Al), gallium (Ga), indium (In), thallium (Tl), tin (Sn), lead (Pb) and bismuth (Bi).

Oganesson

Oganesson (Og) is a radioactive element that has the atomic number 118 in the periodic table, its appearance is not fully known due to the minuscule amounts produced of it. It is in Group 18. It has the symbol Og.

Tennessine

Tennessine (Ts) is a radioactive element that has the atomic number 117 in the periodic table, its appearance is not fully known due to the minuscule amounts produced of it. It is in Group 17. It has the symbol Ts.

Livermorium

Livermorium (Lv) is a radioactive element that has the atomic number 116 in the periodic table, its appearance is not fully known due to the minuscule amounts produced of it. It is in Group 16. It has the symbol Lv.

Moscovium

Moscovium (Mc) is a radioactive metal that has the atomic number 115 in the periodic table, its appearance is not fully known due to the minuscule amounts produced of it. It is in Group 15. It has the symbol Mc.

Flerovium

Flerovium (Fl) is a radioactive metal that has the atomic number 114 in the periodic table, its appearance is not fully known due to the minuscule amounts produced of it. It is in Group 14. It has the symbol Fl.

Nihonium

Nihonium (Nh) is a radioactive metal that has the atomic number 112 in the periodic table, its appearance is not fully known due to the minuscule amounts produced of it. It is in Group 13. It has the symbol Nh.

Copernicium

Copernicium (Cr) is a radioactive metal that has the atomic number 112 in the periodic table, its appearance is not fully known due to the minuscule amounts produced of it. It is a Transition metal in Group 11. It has the symbol Rg.

Roentgenium

Roentgenium (Rg) is a radioactive metal that has the atomic number 111 in the periodic table, its appearance is not fully known due to the minuscule amounts produced of it. It is a Transition metal in Group 11. It has the symbol Rg.

Darmstadtium

Darmstadtium (Ds) is a radioactive metal that has the atomic number 110 in the periodic table, its appearance is not fully known due to the minuscule amounts produced of it. It is a Transition metal in Group 10. It has the symbol Ds

Meitnerium

Meitnerium (Mt) is a radioactive metal that has the atomic number 109 in the periodic table, its appearance is not fully known due to the minuscule amounts produced of it. It is a Transition metal in Group 9. It has the symbol Mt.

Hassium

Hassium (Hs) is a radioactive metal that has the atomic number 108 in the periodic table, its appearance is not fully known due to the minuscule amounts produced of it. It is a Transition metal in Group 8. It has the symbol Hs.

Bohrium

Bohrium (Bh) is a radioactive metal that has the atomic number 107 in the periodic table, its appearance is not fully known due to the minuscule amounts produced of it. It is a Transition metal in Group 7. It has the symbol Bh.

Seaborgium

Seaborgium (Sg) is a radioactive metal that has the atomic number 106 in the periodic table, its appearance is not fully known due to the minuscule amounts produced of it. It is a Transition metal in Group 6. It has the symbol Sg.

Dubnium

Dubnium (Db) is a radioactive metal that has the atomic number 105 in the periodic table, its appearance is not fully known due to the minuscule amounts produced of it. It is a Transition metal in Group 5. It has the symbol Db.

Rutherfordium

Rutherfordium (Rf) is a radioactive metal that has the atomic number 104 in the periodic table, its appearance is not fully known due to the minuscule amounts produced of it. It is a Transition metal in Group 4. It has the symbol Rf.

Lawrencium

Lawrencium (Lr) is a silvery-white colored radioactive metal that has the atomic number 103 in the periodic table. It is an Actinoid Metal with the symbol Lr.

Nobelium

Nobelium (No) is a radioactive metal that has the atomic number 102 in the periodic table, its appearance is not fully known due to the minuscule amounts produced of it. It is an Actinoid Metal with the symbol No.

Mendelevium

Mendelevium (Md) is a radioactive metal that has the atomic number 101 in the periodic table, its appearance is not fully known due to the minuscule amounts produced of it. It is an Actinoid Metal with the symbol Md.

Fermium

Fermium (Fm) is a silvery-white colored radioactive metal that has the atomic number 100 in the periodic table. It is an Actinoid Metal with the symbol Fm.

Einsteinium

Einsteinium (Es) is a silvery-white colored radioactive metal that has the atomic number 99 in the periodic table. It is an Actinoid Metal with the symbol Es.

Californium

Californium (Cf) is a silvery-white colored radioactive metal that has the atomic number 98 in the periodic table. It is an Actinoid Metal with the symbol Cf.

Berkelium

Berkelium (Bk) is a silvery colored radioactive metal that has the atomic number 97 in the periodic table. It is an Actinoid Metal with the symbol Bk.

Curium

Curium (Cm) is a silvery-white colored radioactive metal that has the atomic number 96 in the periodic table. It is an Actinoid Metal with the symbol Cm.

Americium

Americium (Am) is a silvery colored radioactive metal that has the atomic number 95 in the periodic table. It is an Actinoid Metal with the symbol Am.

Plutonium

Plutonium (Pu) is a silvery colored radioactive metal that has the atomic number 94 in the periodic table. It is an Actinoid Metal with the symbol Pu.

Neptunium

Neptunium (Np) is a silvery colored radioactive metal that has the atomic number 93 in the periodic table. It is an Actinoid Metal with the symbol Np.

Protactinium

Protactinium (Pa) is a shiny silver colored radioactive metal that has the atomic number 91 in the periodic table. It is an Actinoid Metal with the symbol Pa.

Thorium

Thorium (Th) is a silvery-white colored radioactive metal that has the atomic number 90 in the periodic table. It is an Actinoid Metal with the symbol Th.

Actinium

Actinium (Ac) is a silvery colored radioactive metal that has the atomic number 89 in the periodic table. It is an Actinoid Metal with the symbol Ac.

Radium

Radium (Ra) is a silvery-white colored metal that has the atomic number 88 in the periodic table. It is an Alkaline earth Metal with the symbol Ra and is located in Group 2 of the periodic table.

Francium

Francium (Fr) is thought to be a gray colored metal that has the atomic number 87 in the periodic table. It is an Alkali Metal with the symbol Fr and is located in Group 1 of the periodic table.

Radon

Radon (Rn) is a colourless, odourless, radioactive gas non-metal that has the atomic number 86 in the periodic table in Group 18. It has the symbol Rn.

Astatine

Astatine (At) is a radioactive non-metal that has the atomic number 85 in the periodic table in Group 17. It has the symbol At.

Polonium

Polonium (Po) is a silvery-gray metal that has the atomic number 84 in the periodic table in Group 16. It has the symbol Po.

Bismuth

Bismuth (Bi) is a hard steel-gray metal that has the atomic number 83 in the periodic table in Group 15. It has the symbol Bi.

Lead

Lead (Pb) is a soft gray metal that has the atomic number 82 in the periodic table in Group 14. It has the symbol Pb.

Thallium

Thallium (Tl) is a soft gray metal that has the atomic number 81 in the periodic table in Group 13. It has the symbol Tl.

Mercury

Mercury (Hg) is a liquid silver coloured metal that has the atomic number 80 in the periodic table. It is a Transition metal in Group 12. It has the symbol Hg.

Gold

Gold (Au) is a soft gold coloured metal that has the atomic number 79 in the periodic table. It is a Transition metal in Group 11. It has the symbol Au.

Platinum

Platinum (Pt) is a heavy white metal that has the atomic number 78 in the periodic table. It is a Transition metal in Group 10. It has the symbol Pt.

Iridium

Iridium (Ir) is a heavy white metal that has the atomic number 77 in the periodic table. It is a Transition metal in Group 9. It has the symbol Ir.

Osmium

Osmium (Os) is a hard fine black powder or blue-white metal that has the atomic number 76 in the periodic table. It is a Transition metal in Group 8. It has the symbol Os.

Rhenium

Rhenium (Re) is a silvery-white coloured metal that has the atomic number 75 in the periodic table. It is a Transition metal in Group 7. It has the symbol Re.

Tungsten

Tungsten (W) is a steel-gray coloured metal that has the atomic number 74 in the periodic table. It is a Transition metal in Group 6. It has the symbol W.

Tantalum

Tantalum (Ta) is a gray coloured metal that has the atomic number 73 in the periodic table. It is a Transition metal in Group 5. It has the symbol Ta.

Hafnium

Hafnium (Hf) is a silvery coloured metal that has the atomic number 72 in the periodic table. It is a Transition metal in Group 4. It has the symbol Hf.

Lutetium

Lutetium (Lu) is a silvery-white coloured metal that has the atomic number 71 in the periodic table. It is a Lanthanide metal. It has the symbol Lu.

Ytterbium

Ytterbium (Yb) is a silvery coloured metal that has the atomic number 70 in the periodic table. It is a Lanthanide metal. It has the symbol Yb.

Thulium

Thulium (Tm) is a silvery coloured metal that has the atomic number 69 in the periodic table. It is a Lanthanide metal. It has the symbol Tm.

Erbium

Erbium (Er) is a silvery coloured metal that has the atomic number 68 in the periodic table. It is a Lanthanide metal. It has the symbol Er.

Holmium

Holmium (Ho) is a silvery coloured metal that has the atomic number 67 in the periodic table. It is a Lanthanide metal. It has the symbol Ho.

Dysprosium

Dysprosium (Dy) is a silvery coloured metal that has the atomic number 66 in the periodic table. It is a Lanthanide metal. It has the symbol Dy.

Terbium

Terbium (Tb) is a silvery-gray coloured metal that has the atomic number 65 in the periodic table. It is a Lanthanide metal. It has the symbol Tb.

Gadolinium

Gadolinium (Gd) is a silvery-white coloured metal that has the atomic number 64 in the periodic table. It is a Lanthanide metal. It has the symbol Gd.

Europium

Europium (Eu) is a silvery-white coloured metal that has the atomic number 63 in the periodic table. It is a Lanthanide metal. It has the symbol Eu.

Samarium

Samarium (Sm) is a silvery coloured metal that has the atomic number 62 in the periodic table. It is a Lanthanide metal. It has the symbol Sm.

Promethium

Promethium (Pm) is a rare metal that has the atomic number 61 in the periodic table. It is a Lanthanide metal. It has the symbol Pm.

Neodymium

Neodymium (Nd) is a silvery white coloured metal that has the atomic number 60 in the periodic table. It is a Lanthanide metal. It has the symbol Nd.

Praseodymium

Praseodymium (Pr) is a silvery white coloured metal that has the atomic number 59 in the periodic table. It is a Lanthanide metal. It has the symbol Pr.

Cerium

Cerium (Ce) is a iron-gray coloured metal that has the atomic number 58 in the periodic table. It is a Lanthanide metal. It has the symbol Ce.

Lanthanum

Lanthanum (La) is a soft silvery white coloured metal that has the atomic number 57 in the periodic table. It is a Lanthanide metal. It has the symbol La.

Barium

Barium (Ba) is a soft silvery white coloured metal that has the atomic number 56 in the periodic table. It is an Alkaline earth metal and is located in Group 2 of the periodic table. it has the symbol Ba.

Caesium

Caesium (Cs) is a soft gray coloured metal that has the atomic number 55 in the periodic table. It is an Alkali Metal and is located in Group 1 of the periodic table. it has the symbol Cs.

Xenon

Xenon (Xe) exists as a colourless, odourless gas and is chemically inert. It has the atomic number 54 in the periodic table and belongs in Group 18, the Noble Gases. It is a non metal with the symbol Xe.

Iodine

Iodine (I) is a purple grey solid non metal. It has the atomic number 53 in the periodic table. It is located in Group 17, the Halogens. It has the symbol I.

Tellurium

Tellurium (Te) is a silver-white semi metal that has the atomic number 52 in the periodic table. It is located in Group 16 of the periodic table. It has the symbol Te.

Antimony

Antimony (Sb) is a hard brittle silver-white semi metal that has the atomic number 51 in the periodic table. It is located in Group 15 of the periodic table. It has the symbol Sb.

Tin

Tin (Sn) is a silver-white metal that has the atomic number 50 in the periodic table. It is located in Group 14 of the periodic table. It has the symbol Sn.

Indium

Indium (In) is a silver-white metal that has the atomic number 49 in the periodic table. It is located in Group 13 of the periodic table. It has the symbol In.

Cadmium

Cadmium (Cd) is a blue-white metal that has the atomic number 48 in the periodic table. It is a Transition metal and located in Group 12 of the periodic table. It has the symbol Cd.

Silver

Silver (Ag) is a silver metal that has the atomic number 47 in the periodic table. It is a Transition metal and located in Group 11 of the periodic table. It has the symbol Ag.

Palladium

Palladium (Pd) is a silver-white metal that has the atomic number 46 in the periodic table. It is a Transition metal and located in Group 10 of the periodic table. It has the symbol Pd.

Rhodium

Rhodium (Rh) is a brittle silver-white metal that has the atomic number 45 in the periodic table. It is a Transition metal and located in Group 9 of the periodic table. It has the symbol Rh.

Ruthenium

Ruthenium (Ru) is a brittle silver-gray metal that has the atomic number 44 in the periodic table. It is a Transition metal and located in Group 8 of the periodic table. It has the symbol Ru.

Technetium

Technetium (Tc) is a silvery-gray metal that has the atomic number 43 in the periodic table. It is a Transition metal and located in Group 7 of the periodic table. It has the symbol Tc.

Molybdenum

Molybdenum (Mo) is a silvery-white metal that has the atomic number 42 in the periodic table. It is a Transition metal and located in Group 6 of the periodic table. It has the symbol Mb.

Niobium

Niobium (Nb) is a shiny white metal that has the atomic number 41 in the periodic table. It is a Transition metal and located in Group 5 of the periodic table. It has the symbol Nb.

Zirconium

Zirconium (Zr) is a gray white metal that has the atomic number 40 in the periodic table. It is a Transition metal and located in Group 4 of the periodic table. It has the symbol Zr.

Yttrium

Yttrium (Y) is a silvery metal that has the atomic number 39 in the periodic table. It is a Transition metal and located in Group 3 of the periodic table. It has the symbol Y.

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