Through radioactive decay, atoms of one element change to atoms of another element 1. However, it is also useful to know the rate of change; do the atoms convert from one element to another immediately, or does it take a long time. The time taken for the atoms of one element to change into another element varies massively from one type of decay to another; it can vary from a split second to billions of years. The term half-life is a measure of the rate of decay; if a radioactive substance has a short half-life means that it decays very quickly, a long half-life means that it decays slowly. The following table shows a range of half-lives for radioisotopes. Radioisotope Polonium-215 Bismuth-212 Sodium-24 Iodine-131 Cobalt-60 Radium-226 Uranium-238 Half-life 0.00178 seconds 60.5 seconds 15 hours 8 days 5.26 years 1600 years 4.5 billion years

When considering the safety of radioisotopes, the ones with short half-lives are very radioactive, but for a very short time and are then safe. Ones with a very long half-life remain radioactive for a very long time, but give off little radiation. The ones in the middle are more problematic in terms of safety; they give off a medium amount of radiation, but remain radioactive for a long time in terms of a human life-span. What does the half-life mean? Is we have an amount of radioactive material then atoms are apparently spontaneously decaying as time passes. Although the level of radioactivity may appear steady, the order in which the atoms decay is uncertain. Hence the half-life measure of radioactive decay is probabilistic; the half-life is the measure of the time taken for half the atoms of an existing sample to convert into the new element. For example if we had 100g of Iodine 131, then after 8 days (the half-life) only 50g of Iodine would remain, after another 16 days only 25g would remain, after 24 days only 12.5g would remain and so on. The decay of Iodine 131 is illustrated in the following graph.


Radioactive decay

Decay of Iodine 131
120 amount remaining, g 100 80 60 40 20 0 0 10 20 30 days 40 50 60

After 56 days there is less than 1 g remaining. The shape of the graph is termed an ‘exponential decay’ curve in mathematics. By way of contrast, consider the dacay of sodium-24. In this case there is less than 1% remaining after 105 hours, but the shape of the graph is always the same.

Decay of Sodium 24
120 amount remaining, g 100 80 60 40 20 0 0 20 40 60 hours 80 100 120

Exercises 1. 2. 3. 4. What % of a sample of Radium-226 will remain after 1600 years? How long will it take for 100 g of Radium-226 to decay to just 25g? If you have 24g of Sodium-24, how much remains after 45 hours? After 32 days you have 10g of Iodine-131 remaining in a sample. How much did you have at the beginning?

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