Types of decay
The light stable nuclides have almost equal neutron and proton numbers.
However, as the mass of the nucleus increases, there must be more neutrons
than protons for a stable nucleus. Because of the longrange electromagnetic
repulsive forces between protons, more neutrons are needed to provide
additional attractive nuclear force to bind all the nucleons together. Stability
is increased when neutrons and protons both are paired.
Unstable nuclei decay spontaneously in various ways. There are three major
decay modes, α, β and γ. In α and β decay processes, an unstable nucleus
emits an α or a βparticle as it tries to become a more stable nucleus. In γ
decay process, an excited state decays toward the ground state without
changing the nuclear species.
In reactions, some quantity is changed into some other quantity and energy
is usually emitted (exothermic reaction) or absorbed (endothermic reaction)
during this reaction. This energy, according to Einstein's Special Theory of
Relativity comes from a change in the rest masses.
2
E Mc Δ = Δ
where
initial final
M M M Δ = − . If the mass is lost in the reaction
initial final
M M > ,
then 0 E Δ > and the reaction is called exothermic. If the mass is gained in the
reaction
initial final
M M < then 0 E Δ < and the reaction is called endothermic.
2
α decay
An alpha particle is a
4
2
He (helium4) nucleus which consists of two protons
and two neutrons. The emission of an α particle from the nucleus of an atom
is called α decay.
The positive charge of alpha particles is useful in some industrial processes:
• Radium226 may be used to treat cancer, by inserting tiny amounts of radium
into the tumorous mass.
• Polonium210 serves as a static eliminator in paper mills and other industries.
The alpha particles, due to their positive charge, attract loose electrons, thus
reducing static charge.
• Some smoke detectors use the alpha emissions from americium241 to help
create an electrical current. The alpha particles strike air molecules within a
chamber, knocking electrons loose. The resulting positively charged ions and
negatively charged electrons, create a current as they flow between positively and
negatively charged plates within the chamber. When smoke particles enter the
device, they attach to and interrupt the flow of charged particles, breaking the
current and setting off the alarm.
The nucleus is initially in an unstable energy state. An internal change takes
place in the unstable nucleus and an alpha particle is ejected with a decay
product. The loss of an alpha particle actually changes the nucleus to a
different one. A change in nuclear charge means that the element has been
changed into a different element.
Example:
Polonium210 is an alpha emitter. During radioactive decay, it loses two
protons, and becomes a lead206 atom, which is stable.
He Pb Po
4
2
206
82
210
84
+ →
Another example is He Th U
4
2
234
90
238
92
+ → .
α decay typically occurs in heavy nuclei where the electrostatic repulsion
between the protons in the nucleus is large. Energy is released in the process
of α decay. Careful measurements show that the sum of the masses of the
daughter nucleus and the α particle is a bit less than the mass of the parent
isotope.
He D P
4
2 2 N
4 A
2 Z N
A
Z
+ →
−
−
−
or He Y X
4
2 2 N
4 A
2 Z N
A
Z
+ →
−
−
−
3
Here we indicate the parent nucleus with P and the daughter nucleus with D.
Einstein's famous equation, E=mc
2
, which says that mass is proportional to
energy, explains this fact that is lost in such decay.
During radioactive decay, conservation principles are
• conservation of energy
• conservation of momentum (linear and angular)
• conservation of charge
• conservation of nucleon number
Conservations of mass means that
2 2 2
P D α
2 A4 4 A
P D α Z2 2 Z
M c M c M c Q
Q (M M M )c B( D) B( He) B( P)
α
α
= + +
= − − = + −
where ( ) ( ) [ ]
2 A
n
1
c X M Nm H ZM B − + = .
(in reality, we should write here the masses without electrons, but since the
number of electrons on both sides is the same, we can use the atomic masses
just as well as the nuclear masses.)
Here Q is the energy shared by the products of the reaction and called the
disintegration energy (or Qvalue). Note that this reactions occurs only if
2
α
2
D
2
P
c M c M c M + >
so if Q is positive. Experimentally, we find that the energy of the αparticles
is always the same, so no other particles are released in the interaction.
4
The energy emerging from the reaction, Q, is usually distributed as kinetic
energy between the daughternucleus and the αparticle. Let's calculate their
relative energies. If neither product is relativistic, the kinetic energies are
written as
Conservation of linear momentum requires
α α D D
v m v m =
and conservation of energy requires
final initial D α P
Q T T T T T
α
= − = + −
where
P
T 0 = since the parent nucleus is at rest. We obtain the Qvalue as
{
final initial D α P
0
D
D α α
α
2 2
D D α α
Q T T T T T
T
T T T 1
T
1 1
m v m v
2 2
α
=
= − = + −
⎛ ⎞
= + = +
⎜ ⎟
⎝ ⎠
= +
From momentum conservation ( )
D D α
v m / m v
α
= , we then obtain it in terms
of the kinetic energy of the alpha particle as
2
2 2 α
D α α α
D
2 α α
α α α
D D
m 1 1
Q m v m v
2 m 2
m m 1
m v 1 T 1
2 m m
α
⎛ ⎞
= +
⎜ ⎟
⎝ ⎠
⎛ ⎞ ⎛ ⎞
= + = +
⎜ ⎟ ⎜ ⎟
⎝ ⎠ ⎝ ⎠
The kinetic energy for the αparticle becomes
D D
α
α D α D
m
T Q Q
m m
A
A A
α α
⎡ ⎤ ⎡ ⎤
= ≈
⎢ ⎥ ⎢ ⎥
+ +
⎣ ⎦ ⎣ ⎦
2
D D D
v m
2
1
T = and
2
α α α
v m
2
1
T =
5
Example :
What is the initial kinetic energy of the alpha particle produced
in the radioactive decay
226 222 4
88 88 2
Ra He Rn → + ?. The Q
α
value is
( ) ( ) ( )
[ ]
226 222 4 2
88 88 2
Q M Ra M M He c
226.025402u222.017571u4.002603u 931.5MeV/u
4.87
Rn
MeV
α
⎡ ⎤
= − −
⎣ ⎦
=
=
The kinetic energy of the alpha particle becomes
( )
( ) ( )
222
88
α
4 222
2 88
Rn
α
α Rn
M
222.017571u
T Q 4.87 4.7836
4.002603u 222.017571u
M He M
222
T Q 4.87 4.7838
4 222
Rn
MeV MeV
Rn
A
MeV MeV
A A
α
α
⎡ ⎤
⎡ ⎤
⎢ ⎥
= = =
⎢ ⎥
⎢ ⎥ +
⎣ ⎦ +
⎣ ⎦
⎡ ⎤
⎡ ⎤
≈ = =
⎢ ⎥
⎢ ⎥
+ +
⎣ ⎦
⎣ ⎦
The remainder of the Q
α
energy is the kinetic energy of the product nucleus
222
88
Rn as 4.870 MeV  4.783 MeV = 0.087 MeV
Rn
T = .
The daughter nucleus is often produced in the ground state, and in this case
the radioactive source emits only αparticle of welldefined energy. It may
also be produced in an excited state which deexcites to the ground state by
emitting a number of γrays. This usually occurs in a very short time (≤ 1ns).
6
Figure shows the energy levels for a decay of
226
88
Ra . This nuclide decays to
the ground state of
222
88
Rn with 94.45% branching ration and to the first
excited state with 5.55% . Two alpha particles with kinetic energies of
5 5
Rn
α
α Rn
222
T Q 4.87 4.7838
4 222
A
MeV MeV
A A
α
⎡ ⎤
⎡ ⎤
≈ = =
⎢ ⎥
⎢ ⎥
+ +
⎣ ⎦
⎣ ⎦
for the decay to the ground sate and
( )
4 5
Rn
α
α Rn
222
T Q 0.1862 4.68 4.601
4 222
A
MeV MeV
A A
α
⎡ ⎤
⎡ ⎤
≈ − = =
⎢ ⎥
⎢ ⎥
+ +
⎣ ⎦
⎣ ⎦
for the decay to the first excited state are observed. Also a 0.186MeV
gamma ray is observed, with an energy equal to the energy difference
between the two alpha particles or the two lowest nuclear states in
222
88
Rn.
Many heavy nuclei like uranium or radium decay spontaneously with
emission of an αparticle and the meanlives range from a fraction of a μs to
more than a billion years. Often the daughter nucleus is itself radioactive, so
there are chains of αdecays and βdecays until eventually a stable nucleus is
reached.
Decay Meanlives
238 234 9
215 211 3
U Th α 6.45x10 y
Po Pb α 2.57x10 y
→ +
→ +
He D P
4
2 2 N
4 A
2 Z N
A
Z
+ →
−
−
−
( ) D) B( P) B( He) B( 0 D) B( P) B( He) B( Q
P) B( He) B( D) B( )c M M (M Q
Q c M c M c M
4  A
2  Z
A
Z
4
2
4  A
2  Z
A
Z
4
2
A
Z
4
2
4  A
2  Z
2
α D P
2
α
2
D
2
P
− > ⇒ > − − =
− + = − − =
+ + =
A 7.7x10 7.075
A
B
A
B
A 7.7x10  4 28.3
curve the of slope the MeV 7.7x10
A
B
dA
d
, 120 A For
A
B
A
B
dA
d
A 4
dA
dB
4 D) B( P) B( He) B(
MeV 28.3 He) B(
3 3
3
4 A
2 Z
A
Z
4
2
4
2
− −
−
−
−
+ ≤ ⇒
⎥
⎦
⎤
⎢
⎣
⎡
+ >
− ≈
⎟
⎠
⎞
⎜
⎝
⎛
>
⎥
⎦
⎤
⎢
⎣
⎡
+
⎟
⎠
⎞
⎜
⎝
⎛
= ≈ − >
=
7
αdecay is possible for A=144206 and there are 7 αemitter that satisfy this
condition in A=144260.
Alpha Emitter Atomic Number
americium241 95
plutonium236 94
uranium238 92
thorium232 90
radium226 88
radon222 86
polonium210 84
8
Let's now look at a different situation in which Q is negative. We now have
an αparticle of mass m
1
hitting a stationary mass of m
2
. The threshold
energy Q is provided by the kinematic energy of the αparticle. We now like
to calculate what the minimum amount of kinetic energy is, as a function of
Q for the nuclear reaction to occur. Note that this is not Q, since part of the
energy of the αparticle will be converted to kinetic energy of the large
nucleus, in order that the center of mass does not move.
We calculate
c
v from
( )
1
2 1
1
c c 2 c 1 1
v
m m
m
v v m v v m
⎟
⎟
⎠
⎞
⎜
⎜
⎝
⎛
+
= ⇒ = −
In the center of mass frame the kinetic energy can be written as
( )
2 2
2
2 2 2 1 1
c 1 1 c 2 c 1 1 2 1
1 2 1 2
2 2
2 2 2 2 1 2
c 1 1 2 1 c 1 1
1 2 1 2 1 2
m m 1 1 1 1
T m v v m v m v 1 m v
2 2 2 m m 2 m m
m m m 1 1 1
T m v m v T m v
2 m m 2 m m 2 m m
⎛ ⎞ ⎛ ⎞
= − + = − +
⎜ ⎟ ⎜ ⎟
+ +
⎝ ⎠ ⎝ ⎠
⎛ ⎞ ⎛ ⎞ ⎛ ⎞
= + ⇒ =
⎜ ⎟ ⎜ ⎟ ⎜ ⎟
+ + +
⎝ ⎠ ⎝ ⎠ ⎝ ⎠
The kinetic energy of
1
m in the laboratory frame is
2
1 1 lab
v m
2
1
T = . We then
obtain
⎟
⎟
⎠
⎞
⎜
⎜
⎝
⎛
+
=
2 1
2
lab c
m m
m
T T
At the threshold energy Q T
c
− = , thus the energy required for this reactions
becomes
( )
⎟
⎟
⎠
⎞
⎜
⎜
⎝
⎛ +
− =
2
2 1
lab
m
m m
Q T
In the center of mass frame
9
Tunneling through barriers
How do we understand αdecay? We know that outside the nucleus α
particles see a Coulomb repulsiontype potential, the evidence has come
from Rutherford Scattering. But there must be another force inside the
nucleus keeping the nucleons in. The potential has to look more or less like
this:
From αparticle scattering we know that the peak of the potential is larger
than the energy of the emitted αparticle. The peak potential may be 10's of
times higher. We think of the αparticle as bouncing back and forwards
inside the nucleus and occasionally tunneling out. Tunneling is a quantum
mechanical effect. For an αparticle with energy smaller than the peak
energy there is a finite possibility, depending on the height of the barrier,
and the width d, that the particle escapes the nucleus. The probability of
escape is very sensitive to these parameters.
From αdecay we can conclude that the strong interaction falls off very
quickly at the surface of the nucleus. It is much stronger inside than
Coulomb repulsion. Alpha emission is a Coulomb repulsive effect. It
becomes increasingly important for heavy nuclei because the Coulomb
force increases with size. Alpha particle is confined in the nucleus by the
potential barrier due to the combined effects of the attractive nuclear force
and the Coulomb interaction between αparticle (charge +2e) and daughter
nucleus (charge Ze).
10
There are three regions of interest. In the spherical region R r < , we are
inside the nucleus and speak of a potential well of depth –V
0
. Classically,
the αparticle can move in this region with a kinetic energy Q+V
0
(where
Q=E
α
) but it cannot escape from the Coulomb barrier. The shell region
b r R < < forms a potential barrier because here the potential energy is more
than the total available energy Q (Q= E
α
). Classically, the αparticle cannot
enter this region from either direction. The region b r > is a classically
permitted region outside the barrier.
Quantum mechanically, there is a “tunneling” through such a barrier. The α
particle within the nucleus must present itself again and again at the barrier
surface until it finally penetrates. In
238
U, for example, probability of
penetrating the barrier is so small (the αparticle must make ∼10
38
tries
before it escapes).
11
For Polonium212, the width of the barrier is 17.9 fm. This is divided into
five equal segments with height equal to the midpoint height of the segment.
Segment height Probability of tunneling
21.9
5
10 20 . 1
−
×
16.4
4
10 74 . 1
−
×
13.2
3
10 43 . 1
−
×
11.0
2
10 98 . 0
−
×
9.4
1
10 85 . 0
−
×
Product of
probabilities
15
10 47 . 2
−
×
Average velocity of αparticle in the nucleus is m/s 10 2 v
7
0
× ≈ and the
average time between “collisions” with the “wall” is about 2R/v
0
. The
frequency becomes
1/s. 10 0 . 1
m 2x10
m/s 10 2
2R
v
f
21
4 1
7
0
× ≈
×
=
⎟
⎠
⎞
⎜
⎝
⎛
=
−
For a given alpha, the combined tunneling probability per second for
emission is the product
( )( ) λ 1/s 10 2.47 1/s 10 1.0 10 2.47
6 21 15
= × = × ×
−
which gives halflife
s 10 0.28
1/s 10 2.47
0.693
λ
0.693
t
6
6
1/2
−
× =
×
= =
12
So the model gives a halflife of 0.28 microseconds compared to the
experimental halflife of 0.3 microseconds. Not all of them agree this well
with just a five segment barrier approximation.
The transmission probability (the probability of penetrating the barrier) is
G 2γ
2
γ
2
e e e T P
− − −
= = = ≡
[ ]
⎭
⎬
⎫
⎩
⎨
⎧
− − = ≈
∫
−
b
R
α
2
G
E V(r)
2m
dr 2 exp e P
h
αparticle has positive kinetic energy and the wave function is oscillatory for
values R r < and b r > . The Coulomb barrier is
r
e) e)(Z (Z
ε 4π
1
V(r)
D α
0
=
where 2 =
α
Z and Z Z Z
daughter D
≡ = . The distance b is the value of r at which
the height of the Coulomb barrier equals E
α
that
b
1
ε 4π
2Ze
E
0
2
α
=
Thus
x
2
π
(x) Cos
ε ε sin ε Cos
2
π
Sin ε Sin
2
π
Cos ε)
2
π
Cos(
dr
b
1
r
1
πε
Ze m
2 G
1 
b
R
b
R
b
R
ArcCos b
b
R
2
0
2
α
2
− =
≈ = + = −
⎟
⎟
⎠
⎞
⎜
⎜
⎝
⎛
− =
⎥
⎥
⎦
⎤
⎢
⎢
⎣
⎡
⎟
⎠
⎞
⎜
⎝
⎛
− −
∫
4 43 4 42 1
h
1
R π R
For R b; Cos
b 2 b
<< = −
2 2
2
α
2
0
2
α
2
0
m Ze π R R R R
G 2 b , 0
2 b b b b πε
m Ze π R
2 b 2
2 b πε
⎡ ⎤
⎛ ⎞ ⎛ ⎞
⎢ ⎥
= − − − →
⎜ ⎟ ⎜ ⎟
⎢ ⎥
⎝ ⎠ ⎝ ⎠
⎣ ⎦
⎡ ⎤
= −
⎢ ⎥
⎣ ⎦
h
h
13
2 2
2
α α α
2 2
0 0 α α
2 2 2
α α
2 2 2
0 0 α α 0
2 2
α
2
0 0
1 2Ze 1 2Ze
E m v b 2
2 b πε πε m v
m Ze m Ze 2Ze π R
G 2 2 4 b
2 b πε πε m v πε
m Ze Ze
4 R
πε v πε
= = ⇒ =
= −
= −
h
h h
h h
⎥
⎥
⎦
⎤
⎢
⎢
⎣
⎡
− =
⎥
⎥
⎦
⎤
⎢
⎢
⎣
⎡
+ − = ≈ ⇒
α
2 1
2
0
2
α
0
2
G 
E
Z
C C exp R
4ππ
Ze m
8
v ε
Ze
exp e P
h h
where C
1
and C
2
are constants.
α
2 1
E
Z
C C lnP − =
The probability of escape at each collisions is
G
e
−
, so the probability of
emission per unit time is
G 0
e
2R
v
−
⎟
⎠
⎞
⎜
⎝
⎛
and hence the life time (mean life) of the
parent nucleus is about
G
0
e
v
2R
τ
⎟
⎟
⎠
⎞
⎜
⎜
⎝
⎛
=
The decay rate can be written as
P
2R
v
e
2R
v
τ
1
λ
0 G 0
⎟
⎠
⎞
⎜
⎝
⎛
=
⎟
⎠
⎞
⎜
⎝
⎛
= =
−
3
0
0
1 2
α
C
3 2
α
v
Lnλ Lnτ Ln LnP
2R
v Z
= Ln C C
2R E
Z
Lnλ C C
E
⎛ ⎞
= = +
⎜ ⎟
⎝ ⎠
⎛ ⎞
+ −
⎜ ⎟
⎝ ⎠
= −
1442443
14
A good understanding of αdecay probabilities can be obtained by making
two approximation:
i) E
α
=0 (since E
α
is much smaller than the hight of Coulomb barrier)
ii) R=0 (Since R<<b)
We thus obtain
G 0
0 0
2
e
2R
v
τ
1
λ
v ε
Ze
G
−
⎟
⎠
⎞
⎜
⎝
⎛
= =
≈
h
1/2
α
0
2
0
α α
α
0 0
2
0
2
m
4ε
16Ze
D and
2R
v
Ln C where
v /m 2E since
E
1
D C Lnτ
v ε
Ze

2R
v
Ln Lnτ Lnλ
⎟
⎠
⎞
⎜
⎝
⎛
=
⎟
⎠
⎞
⎜
⎝
⎛
− =
= + =
⎟
⎠
⎞
⎜
⎝
⎛
= =
h
h
For
232
Th, E
α
=4.08 MeV and
212
Po, E
α
=8.45 MeV
⇒
27 63
2.3x10 e
τ(Po)
τ(Th)
63
τ(Po)
τ(Th)
ln = ≈ ⇒ ≈
Experimentally this ratio, as has already observed, is ≅10
24
. The agreement
is reasonable.
Another Example:
The emission of 4.2 MeV alphaparticles from He Th U
4
2
234
90
238
92
+ → , the
transmission probability (the probability of penetrating the barrier) is
obtained as
2
90 39
P T e 10
− −
≡ = ≈
and correspondingly
21 39 1 18 1 0
18 17 10
v 1
λ P=1.7 10 10 =1.7 10
τ 2R
1/1.7 10 4.1 10 1.3 10
s s
s s y τ
− −
⎛ ⎞
= = × × ×
⎜ ⎟
⎝ ⎠
= × = × ≈ ×
The experimental halflife is
10
0.45 10 y × that is, a remarkable agreement.
15
Angular momentum and Parity in αdecay
In a transition from an initial nuclear state of angular momentum j
i
to a final
state j
f
, the angular momentum of the αparticle can range
f i f i
j j j j j + ≤ ≤ −
α
He
4
2
: two protons and two neutrons, all in 1s state and all with their spins
coupled pairwise to zero (s
α
=0). αparticle in a decay processes is purely
orbital in character.
The αparticle wave function is then represented by a Y
lm
wth
α
l l = ; thus
the parity change associated with α emission is
α
1) (
l
− . Transition are
permitted or are absoluately forbidden by conservation of parity. If the initial
and final parities are the same then
α
l must be even, if the parities are
different then
α
l must be odd.
0 s since j j j
He D P
α α α f i
4
2
4 A
2 Z
A
Z
= =
+ →
−
−
l
,... ,4 ,3 ,2 1 0 : forbidden
,... ,4 ,3 ,2 ,1 0 0 : permitted
(1) D of parity P of parity
He of parity D of parity P of parity : on conservati Parity
α
4 A
2 Z
A
Z
4
2
4 A
2 Z
A
Z
− + − + +
+ − + − + +
−
−
−
−
→
→
× =
× =
l
where
⎪
⎭
⎪
⎬
⎫
⎪
⎩
⎪
⎨
⎧
⎥
⎦
⎤
⎢
⎣
⎡
−
+
+ − = ≈ =
∫
−
b
R
α
2
2
D α
0
2
G
2
E
2mr
1) (
r
e) e)(Z (Z
ε 4π
1 2m
dr 2 exp e T P
l l h
h
16
Example: