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SPhO General Notes: Nuclear Physics

Nuclear Physics
Properties of Nuclei


and A = nucleon (mass) number, with 1u =


All nuclei have approximately the same density since volume of a nucleus is proportional to its
nucleon number.

Electrons, protons, and neutrons are all

particles. Nucleons have a spin angular moment of S,
given by:

In addition to the spin angular momentum, nucleons may have orbital angular momentum
associated with their motions within the nucleus.

The total angular momentum J (also the nuclear spin) of the nucleus is thus the vector sum of the
individual spin and the orbital angular momenta of all the nucleons, with the magnitude:

This shows that when the total number of nucleons A is even, j will be an integer; if odd, j is a half-

Nuclear magneton,

, is the magnetic moments of a nucleus.

Application: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

Proton (Z) mass 1.007276u

where A = Z + N
Neutron (N) mass 1.008665u
Electron mass 0.000548580u
Radius of nucleus =

SPhO General Notes: Nuclear Physics

Nuclear Binding Energy
Energy required to separate nucleus into its individual protons and neutrons is the binding energy

, and by the equivalence of the rest mass and energy, the total mass of the nucleons is always
greater than the mass of nucleus by an amount called the mass defect

, where:




= 931.5MeV/u,

= mass of Z protons and Z electrons combined as Z neutral

to balance the Z electrons included in

which is the mass of the neutral atom.

Nuclear Force
A strong force that binds the neutrons and protons together in the nucleus.
 Independent of charge
 Short-range (of order of dimensions

), much stronger than any force within the
nuclear range
 Nearly constant density of nuclear matter and nearly constant binding energy per nucleon of
larger nuclides  nucleons cannot interact simultaneously with all other nucleons in the
nucleus, but only those few in the immediate vicinity (limited interaction/saturation)
 Nuclear force favours binding of pairs of protons/neutrons with opposite spins and of pairs
with pairs (each pair having opposite spins)  thus the -paricle is an extremely stable
nucleus for having 2 protons and 2 neutrons

Liquid-Drop Model
Scattering experiments suggest that nuclei have approximately constant density, so that the nuclear
radius can be calculated by using that density as if the nucleus were a drop of a uniform liquid. A
liquid drop model of the nucleus would take into account the fact that the forces on the nucleons on
the surface is different from those on nucleons on the interior where they are completely
surrounded by other attracting nucleons.
Shell Model
Nuclei with even numbers of protons and neutrons are more stable than those with odd numbers. In
particular, there are "magic numbers" of neutrons and protons which seem to be particularly
favoured in terms of nuclear stability:
{2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, 126}
Nuclei which have both neutron number and proton number equal to one of the magic numbers can
be called "doubly magic", and are found to be particularly stable.

Calcium provides a good example of the exceptional stability
of "doubly magic" nuclei since it has two of them. The
existence of several stable isotopes of calcium may have to to
with the fact that Z=20, a magic number. The two highlighted
isotopes have neutron numbers 20 and 28, also magic

SPhO General Notes: Nuclear Physics

Nuclear Stability and Radioactivity
Unstable nuclides decay to form other nuclides by emitting particles and electromagnetic radiation
through the process of radioactivity because they experience an intense conflict between the strong
and the electromagnetic forces (with the increasing influence of the electrical repulsion between the
protons). Radiation from nuclear sources is distributed equally in all directions, obeying the inverse
square law.

For stable nuclides: neutron-proton ratio (N/Z):
 1 for light nuclides
 1.6 for the heaviest nuclides
 1.3 for A=100
 1.4 for A=150

The most
radiations are
alpha, beta,
and gamma

Alpha Decay
The disintegration of parent nucleus to form a daughter through the emission of an alpha particle:
helium nuclei

(2 protons Z + 2 neutrons N). Alpha decay is possible whenever the mass of the
original neutral atom is greater than the sum of the masses of the final neutral atom and the neutral
helium-4 atom. It is a spontaneous fission of parent nucleus into 2 daughter nuclei with highly
asymmetric masses.

where Q = disintegration energy as the difference in the rest masses of initial and final states

SPhO General Notes: Nuclear Physics

The speed of the emitted alpha particle, determined from the curvature of its path in a transverse
magnetic field, is about

This speed, although large, is only 5% of the speed of light, thus
nonrelativistic kinetic energy formula is still used.

By conservation of energy:




= mass of parent, daughter, and -particle,


= KE of daughter and -particle

For emission of photon:

For massive nuclei, most energy will be carried by the -particle:


Beta Decay
3 types of beta decay:


, and electron capture.

decay can occur whenever the mass of the original neutral atom is larger than that of the final
atom, and the decay occurs when the nuclides have too large a neutron-to-proton ratio N/Z.

is an electron, and the emission of it involves the transformation of a neutron into a proton, an
electron, and an anti-neutrino. Speed of can range up to 0.9995c, thus the speed is highly

If the N/Z ratio is too small for stability, a positron can be emitted through


SPhO General Notes: Nuclear Physics

decay can occur whenever the mass of the original neutral atom is at least 2 electron masses
larger than that of the final atom.

Electron capture takes place when a few nuclides for which

decay is not energetically possible
but in which an orbital electron (

) can combine with a proton in the nucleus to form a neutron
and a neutrino. The neutron remains in the nucleus while the neutrino is emitted:

Electron capture occurs whenever the mass of the original neutral atom is larger than that of the
final atom.

 For all beta-decay, A remains constant
 But for

decay and electron capture:
o N increases by 1 and Z decreases by 1 as the N/Z ratio increases towards a more
stable value (which means net A is still the same)

Gamma Decay
When a nucleus is placed in an excited energy state, either by bombardment of high-energy particles
or by radioactive transformation, it can decay to its ground state by emission of one or more
photons called gamma rays (10keV to 5MeV). Note that the element does not change after -decay,
since only energy is released and mass is not changed.

where * means excited state

When a gamma ray passes through matter, the probability for absorption is given by:

where x is the distance from the incident surface, μ = nσ is the absorption coefficient, measured in
, n the number of atoms per cm
of the material (atomic density) and σ the absorption cross
section in cm
Radiation Penetration

SPhO General Notes: Nuclear Physics

Decay Scheme

Decay scheme of Au Decay scheme of Co
A decay scheme is a schematic representation of
nuclear transformations showing decay mode,
energy transitions, and abundance (branching
ratios). It consists of a qualitative plot of energy
(vertical axis) versus atomic number (horizontal
axis). Transitions leading to an increase in Z are
indicated by an arrow slanting down and to the
right (beta). Those leading to a decrease in Z are
indicated by a downward arrow to the left (alpha).
Gamma emission, which results in no change in Z,
is indicated by a vertical line.
Decay scheme of Po

Natural Radioactivity
A series of successive decays occur from the parent
nucleus to the daughter nuclei to reach a stable
configuration. Radioactive decay series can be
represented on a Segre chart.

Radioactive Decay Rates

Where = number of radioactive nuclei at time t,

= decay rate, and = decay constant.
The larger the , the faster the decay rate. is also the
ratio of the number of decays per time to the number
of remaining radioactive nuclei, thus the probability
per unit time that any individual nucleus will decay.

(Number of remaining nuclei at time t)
SPhO General Notes: Nuclear Physics

Time required for the number of radioactive nuclei to decrease
to one-half of the original number



= lifetime

Curie (Ci) =

Becquerel (Bq) = activity

Nuclear Reactions
Classical conservation principles for charge, momentum, angular momentum, and energy are all
obeyed in all nuclear reactions. In addition, the conservation of the total number of nucleons is also

When 2 nuclei interact, the charge conservation requires the sum of the initial atomic numbers to
equal to the sum of the final atomic numbers. These reactions do not involve elastic collisions, and
the total initial mass does not equal to the total final mass.

Reaction Energy
Reaction energy is the difference between the masses before and after the reaction, following E=mc

Exoergic reaction: when Q is positive, the total mass decreases and the total kinetic energy increases.
Endoergic reaction: when Q is negative, the mass increases and the kinetic energy decreases.

Endoergic reactions cannot take place at all unless the initial KE in the center of mass reference
frame is at least great as|| = threshold energy.

Neutron Absorption
Heavy nuclei bombarded by neutrons can undergo a series of neutron absorptions alternating with
beta-decays, in which A increases by as much as 25. Many transuranic elements (with Z>92) are
produced this way.

When bombarded with neutrons, many stable nuclides absorb a neutron to become unstable, thus
going through

decay. Energies of electrons and associated gamma emissions provide means of
identifying the original stable nuclide.
Nuclear Fission
A decay process in which an unstable nucleus splits into 2 fragments of comparable mass. Fission
resulting from neutron absorption is called induced fission. Some nuclides can also go through
spontaneous fission without initial neutron absorption, but rarely.

SPhO General Notes: Nuclear Physics

The total KE of the fission fragments is huge, and the binding energy per nucleon is huge during
fission as well. The increase in both KE and binding energy during fission does not violate the
Conservation of Energy since the increase in the binding energy corresponds to the decrease the rest
energy (which is converted to the KE of fission fragments).

Fission fragments always have too many neutrons, thus having a large N/Z ratio  unstable
As such, they respond to the surplus of neutrons by going through a series of beta-decays until a
stable N/Z is reached, for example:

During fission, neutrons released can trigger more fissions, thus a possibility of a chain-reaction.
Nuclear Fusion
Two or more small light nuclei fuse to form a larger nucleus, releasing energy since the binding
energy per nucleon after the reaction is greater than before. The total mass of the products is less
than that of the initial particles.

For 2 nuclei to undergo fusion, they must come together within the range of the nuclear force by
overcoming the electrical repulsion between the protons. For such high energy, it is only possible at
extremely high temperatures, with the relationship:

where k is the Boltzmann’s constant

Cold fusion has been studied on achieving fusion without high temperatures, including the usage of
an unusual hydrogen molecule ion

through the muon-catalysed fusion.