Skip to main content
\(\require{cancel}\)
Physics LibreTexts

10.S: Nuclear Physics (Summary)

  • Page ID
    10323
  • Key Terms

    activitymagnitude of the decay rate for radioactive nuclides
    alpha (α) raysone of the types of rays emitted from the nucleus of an atom as alpha particles
    alpha decayradioactive nuclear decay associated with the emission of an alpha particle
    antielectronsanother term for positrons
    antineutrinoantiparticle of an electron’s neutrino in β−β− decay
    atomic masstotal mass of the protons, neutrons, and electrons in a single atom
    atomic mass unitunit used to express the mass of an individual nucleus, where \(\displaystyle 1u=1.66054×10^{−27}kg\)
    atomic nucleustightly packed group of nucleons at the center of an atom
    atomic numbernumber of protons in a nucleus
    becquerel (Bq)SI unit for the decay rate of a radioactive material, equal to 1 decay/second
    beta (ββ) raysone of the types of rays emitted from the nucleus of an atom as beta particles
    beta decayradioactive nuclear decay associated with the emission of a beta particle
    binding energy (BE)energy needed to break a nucleus into its constituent protons and neutrons
    binding energy per nucleon (BEN)energy need to remove a nucleon from a nucleus
    breeder reactorreactor that is designed to make plutonium
    carbon-14 datingmethod to determine the age of formerly living tissue using the ratio \(\displaystyle ^{14}C/^{12}C\)
    chart of the nuclidesgraph comprising stable and unstable nuclei
    critical massminimum mass required of a given nuclide in order for self-sustained fission to occur
    criticalitycondition in which a chain reaction easily becomes self-sustaining
    curie (Ci)unit of decay rate, or the activity of 1 g of \(\displaystyle ^{226}Ra\), equal to \(\displaystyle 3.70×10^{10}Bq\)
    daughter nucleusnucleus produced by the decay of a parent nucleus
    decayprocess by which an individual atomic nucleus of an unstable atom loses mass and energy by emitting ionizing particles
    decay constantquantity that is inversely proportional to the half-life and that is used in equation for number of nuclei as a function of time
    decay seriesseries of nuclear decays ending in a stable nucleus
    fissionsplitting of a nucleus
    gamma (γγ) raysone of the types of rays emitted from the nucleus of an atom as gamma particles
    gamma decayradioactive nuclear decay associated with the emission of gamma radiation
    half-lifetime for half of the original nuclei to decay (or half of the original nuclei remain)
    high dosedose of radiation greater than 1 Sv (100 rem)
    isotopesnuclei having the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons
    lifetimeaverage time that a nucleus exists before decaying
    liquid drop modelmodel of nucleus (only to understand some of its features) in which nucleons in a nucleus act like atoms in a drop
    low dosedose of radiation less than 100 mSv (10 rem)
    mass defectdifference between the mass of a nucleus and the total mass of its constituent nucleons
    mass numbernumber of nucleons in a nucleus
    moderate dosedose of radiation from 0.1 Sv to 1 Sv (10 to 100 rem)
    neutrinosubatomic elementary particle which has no net electric charge
    neutron numbernumber of neutrons in a nucleus
    nuclear fusionprocess of combining lighter nuclei to make heavier nuclei
    nuclear fusion reactornuclear reactor that uses the fusion chain to produce energy
    nucleonsprotons and neutrons found inside the nucleus of an atom
    nucleosynthesisprocess of fusion by which all elements on Earth are believed to have been created
    nuclidenucleus
    parent nucleusoriginal nucleus before decay
    positronelectron with positive charge
    positron emission tomography (PET)tomography technique that uses \(\displaystyle β^+\) emitters and detects the two annihilation \(\displaystyle γ\) rays, aiding in source localization
    proton-proton chaincombined reactions that fuse hydrogen nuclei to produce He nuclei
    radiation dose unit (rad)ionizing energy deposited per kilogram of tissue
    radioactive datingapplication of radioactive decay in which the age of a material is determined by the amount of radioactivity of a particular type that occurs
    radioactive decay lawdescribes the exponential decrease of parent nuclei in a radioactive sample
    radioactive tagsspecial drugs (radiopharmaceuticals) that allow doctors to track movement of other drugs in the body
    radioactivityspontaneous emission of radiation from nuclei
    radiopharmaceuticalcompound used for medical imaging
    radius of a nucleusradius of a nucleus is defined as \(\displaystyle r=r_0A^{1/3}\)
    relative biological effectiveness (RBE)number that expresses the relative amount of damage that a fixed amount of ionizing radiation of a given type can inflict on biological tissues
    roentgen equivalent man (rem)dose unit more closely related to effects in biological tissue
    sievert (Sv)SI equivalent of the rem
    single-photon-emission computed tomography (SPECT)tomography performed with \(\displaystyle γ\)-emitting radiopharmaceuticals
    strong nuclear forceforce that binds nucleons together in the nucleus
    transuranic elementelement that lies beyond uranium in the periodic table

    Key Equations

    Atomic mass number\(\displaystyle A=Z+N\)
    Standard format for expressing an isotope\(\displaystyle ^A_ZX\)
    Nuclear radius, where r0 is the radius of a single proton\(\displaystyle r=r_0A^{1/3}\)
    Mass defect\(\displaystyle Δm=Zm_p+(A−Z)m_n−m_{nuc}\)
    Binding energy\(\displaystyle E=(Δm)c^2\)
    Binding energy per nucleon\(\displaystyle BEN=\frac{E_b}{A}\)
    Radioactive decay rate\(\displaystyle −\frac{dN}{dt}=λN\)
    Radioactive decay law\(\displaystyle N=N_0e^{−λt}\)
    Decay constant\(\displaystyle λ=\frac{0.693}{T_{1/2}}\)
    Lifetime of a substance\(\displaystyle \bar{T}=\frac{1}{λ}\)
    Activity of a radioactive substance\(\displaystyle A=A_0e^{−λt}\)
    Activity of a radioactive substance (linear form)\(\displaystyle lnA=−λt+lnA_0\)
    Alpha decay\(\displaystyle ^A_ZX→^{A−4}_{Z−2}X+^4_2He\)
    Beta decay\(\displaystyle ^A_ZX→^A_{Z+1}X+^0_{−1}e+\bar{v}\)
    Positron emission\(\displaystyle A^Z_X→^A_{Z−1}X+^0_{+1}e+v\)
    Gamma decay\(\displaystyle ^A_ZX*→^A_ZX+γ\)

    Summary

    10.1 Properties of Nuclei

    • The atomic nucleus is composed of protons and neutrons.

    • The number of protons in the nucleus is given by the atomic number, Z. The number of neutrons in the nucleus is the neutron number, N. The number of nucleons is mass number, A.

    • Atomic nuclei with the same atomic number, Z, but different neutron numbers, N, are isotopes of the same element.

    • The atomic mass of an element is the weighted average of the masses of its isotopes.

    10.2 Nuclear Binding Energy

    • The mass defect of a nucleus is the difference between the total mass of a nucleus and the sum of the masses of all its constituent nucleons.

    • The binding energy (BE) of a nucleus is equal to the amount of energy released in forming the nucleus, or the mass defect multiplied by the speed of light squared.

    • A graph of binding energy per nucleon (BEN) versus atomic number A implies that nuclei divided or combined release an enormous amount of energy.

    • The binding energy of a nucleon in a nucleus is analogous to the ionization energy of an electron in an atom.

    10.3 Radioactive Decay

    • In the decay of a radioactive substance, if the decay constant (λλ) is large, the half-life is small, and vice versa.

    • The radioactive decay law, \(\displaystyle N=N_0e^{−λt}\), uses the properties of radioactive substances to estimate the age of a substance.

    • Radioactive carbon has the same chemistry as stable carbon, so it mixes into the ecosphere and eventually becomes part of every living organism. By comparing the abundance of \(\displaystyle ^{14}C\) in an artifact with the normal abundance in living tissue, it is possible to determine the artifact’s age.

    10.4 Nuclear Reactions

    • The three types of nuclear radiation are alpha (\(\displaystyle α\)) rays, beta (\(\displaystyle β\)) rays, and gamma (\(\displaystyle γ\)) rays.

    • We represent αα decay symbolically by \(\displaystyle ^A_ZX→^{A−4}_{Z−2}X+^4_2He\). There are two types of \(\displaystyle β\) decay: either an electron (\(\displaystyle β^−\)) or a positron (\(\displaystyle β^+\)) is emitted by a nucleus. \(\displaystyle γ\) decay is represented symbolically by \(\displaystyle ^A_ZX*→^A_ZX+γ\).

    • When a heavy nucleus decays to a lighter one, the lighter daughter nucleus can become the parent nucleus for the next decay, and so on, producing a decay series.

    10.5 Fission

    • Nuclear fission is a process in which the sum of the masses of the product nuclei are less than the masses of the reactants.

    • Energy changes in a nuclear fission reaction can be understood in terms of the binding energy per nucleon curve.

    • The production of new or different isotopes by nuclear transformation is called breeding, and reactors designed for this purpose are called breeder reactors.

    10.6 Nuclear Fusion

    • Nuclear fusion is a reaction in which two nuclei are combined to form a larger nucleus; energy is released when light nuclei are fused to form medium-mass nuclei.

    • The amount of energy released by a fusion reaction is known as the Q value.

    • Nuclear fusion explains the reaction between deuterium and tritium that produces a fusion (or hydrogen) bomb; fusion also explains the production of energy in the Sun, the process of nucleosynthesis, and the creation of the heavy elements.

    10.7 Medical Applications and Biological Effects of Nuclear Radiation

    • Nuclear technology is used in medicine to locate and study diseased tissue using special drugs called radiopharmaceuticals. Radioactive tags are used to identify cancer cells in the bones, brain tumors, and Alzheimer’s disease, and to monitor the function of body organs, such as blood flow, heart muscle activity, and iodine uptake in the thyroid gland.

    • The biological effects of ionizing radiation are due to two effects it has on cells: interference with cell reproduction and destruction of cell function.

    • Common sources of radiation include that emitted by Earth due to the isotopes of uranium, thorium, and potassium; natural radiation from cosmic rays, soils, and building materials, and artificial sources from medical and dental diagnostic tests.

    • Biological effects of nuclear radiation are expressed by many different physical quantities and in many different units, including the rad or radiation dose unit.

    Contributors

    Samuel J. Ling (Truman State University), Jeff Sanny (Loyola Marymount University), and Bill Moebs with many contributing authors. This work is licensed by OpenStax University Physics under a Creative Commons Attribution License (by 4.0).