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Physics LibreTexts

4.5: Alpha Decay

  • Page ID
    15747
  • Many types of heavy atomic nucleus spontaneously decay to produce daughter nucleii via the emission of \(\alpha\)-particles (i.e., helium nucleii) of some characteristic energy. This process is know as \(\alpha\)-decay. Let us investigate the \(\alpha\)-decay of a particular type of atomic nucleus of radius \(R\), charge-number \(Z\), and mass-number \(A\). Such a nucleus thus decays to produce a daughter nucleus of charge-number \(Z_1=Z-2\) and mass-number \(A_1=A-4\), and an \(\alpha\)-particle of charge-number \(Z_2=2\) and mass-number \(A_2=4\). Let the characteristic energy of the \(\alpha\)-particle be \(E\). Incidentally, nuclear radii are found to satisfy the empirical formula \[R = 1.5\times 10^{-15}\,A^{1/3}\,{\rm m}=2.0\times 10^{-15}\,Z_1^{\,1/3}\,{\rm m}\] for \(Z\gg 1\).

    In 1928, George Gamow proposed a very successful theory of \(\alpha\)-decay, according to which the \(\alpha\)-particle moves freely inside the nucleus, and is emitted after tunneling through the potential barrier between itself and the daughter nucleus . In other words, the \(\alpha\)-particle, whose energy is \(E\), is trapped in a potential well of radius \(R\) by the potential barrier \[V(r) = \frac{Z_1\,Z_2\,e^{\,2}}{4\pi\,\epsilon_0\,r}\] for \(r>R\).

    Making use of the WKB approximation (and neglecting the fact that \(r\) is a radial, rather than a Cartesian, coordinate), the probability of the \(\alpha\)-particle tunneling through the barrier is \[|T|^{\,2} = \exp\left(-\frac{2\sqrt{2\,m}}{\hbar}\int_{r_1}^{r_2} \sqrt{V(r)-E}\,dr\right),\] where \(r_1=R\) and \(r_2 = Z_1\,Z_2\,e^{\,2}/(4\pi\,\epsilon_0\,E)\). Here, \(m=4\,m_p\) is the \(\alpha\)-particle mass. The previous expression reduces to \[|T|^{\,2} = \exp\left(-2\sqrt{2}\,\beta \int_{1}^{E_c/E}\left[\frac{1}{y}-\frac{E}{E_c}\right]^{1/2} dy\right),\] where \[\beta = \left(\frac{Z_1\,Z_2\,e^{\,2}\,m\,R}{4\pi\,\epsilon_0\,\hbar^{\,2}}\right)^{1/2} = 0.74\,Z_1^{\,2/3}\] is a dimensionless constant, and \[E_c = \frac{Z_1\,Z_2\,e^{\,2}}{4\pi\,\epsilon_0\,R} = 1.44\,Z_1^{\,2/3}\,\,{\rm MeV}\] is the characteristic energy the \(\alpha\)-particle would need in order to escape from the nucleus without tunneling. Of course, \(E\ll E_c\). It is easily demonstrated that \[\int_1^{1/\epsilon}\left(\frac{1}{y} - \epsilon\right)^{1/2} dy \simeq \frac{\pi}{2\sqrt{\epsilon}}-2\] when \(\epsilon\ll 1\). Hence. \[|T|^{\,2} \simeq \exp\left(-2\sqrt{2}\,\beta\left[\frac{\pi}{2}\sqrt{\frac{E_c}{E}}-2\right]\right).\]

    Now, the \(\alpha\)-particle moves inside the nucleus with the characteristic velocity \(v= \sqrt{2\,E/m}\). It follows that the particle bounces backward and forward within the nucleus at the frequency \(\nu\simeq v/R\), giving \[\nu\simeq 2\times 10^{28}\,\,{\rm yr}^{-1}\] for a 1 MeV \(\alpha\)-particle trapped inside a typical heavy nucleus of radius \(10^{-14}\) m. Thus, the \(\alpha\)-particle effectively attempts to tunnel through the potential barrier \(\nu\) times a second. If each of these attempts has a probability \(|T|^{\,2}\) of succeeding then the probability of decay per unit time is \(\nu\,|T|^{\,2}\). Hence, if there are \(N(t)\gg 1\) undecayed nuclii at time \(t\) then there are only \(N+dN\) at time \(t+dt\), where \[dN = - N\,\nu\,|T|^{\,2}\,dt.\] This expression can be integrated to give \[N(t) = N(0)\,\exp(-\nu\,|T|^{\,2}\,t).\] Now, the half-life, \(\tau\), is defined as the time which must elapse in order for half of the nuclii originally present to decay. It follows from the previous formula that \[\tau = \frac{\ln 2}{\nu\,|T|^{\,2}}.\] Note that the half-life is independent of \(N(0)\).

    Finally, making use of the previous results, we obtain \[\label{e5.64} \log_{10}[\tau ({\rm yr})] = -C_1 - C_2\,Z_1^{\,2/3} + C_3\,\frac{Z_1}{\sqrt{E({\rm MeV})}},\] where \[\begin{aligned} C_1 &= 28.5,\\[0.5ex] C_2 &= 1.83,\\[0.5ex] C_3 &= 1.73.\end{aligned}\] Equation ([e5.64]) is known as the Geiger-Nuttall formula, because it was discovered empirically by H. Geiger and J.M. Nuttall in 1911 .

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    The half-life, \(\tau\), the daughter charge-number, \(Z_1=Z-2\), and the \(\alpha\)-particle energy, \(E\), for atomic nucleii which undergo \(\alpha\)-decay are indeed found to satisfy a relationship of the form ([e5.64]). The best fit to the data (see Figure [fal]) is obtained using \[\begin{aligned} C_1 &= 28.9,\\[0.5ex] C_2 &= 1.60,\\[0.5ex] C_3 &= 1.61.\end{aligned}\] Note that these values are remarkably similar to those calculated previously.

    Contributors

    • Richard Fitzpatrick (Professor of Physics, The University of Texas at Austin)

      \( \newcommand {\ltapp} {\stackrel {_{\normalsize<}}{_{\normalsize \sim}}}\) \(\newcommand {\gtapp} {\stackrel {_{\normalsize>}}{_{\normalsize \sim}}}\) \(\newcommand {\btau}{\mbox{\boldmath$\tau$}}\) \(\newcommand {\bmu}{\mbox{\boldmath$\mu$}}\) \(\newcommand {\bsigma}{\mbox{\boldmath$\sigma$}}\) \(\newcommand {\bOmega}{\mbox{\boldmath$\Omega$}}\) \(\newcommand {\bomega}{\mbox{\boldmath$\omega$}}\) \(\newcommand {\bepsilon}{\mbox{\boldmath$\epsilon$}}\)