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Introduction Page

Protons and neutrons – Nuclear stability Page

Nuclear Binding Energy Page

Band of stability Page

Stability and radioactive decay Page

The Odd-even rule Page

The Magic Numbers Page

Periodic table – elements, isotopes and stability Page

Conclusion Page

Bibliography Page

Nuclear stability is the ability of an isotope to resist decay or fission, thus the
nucleus is stable and does not spontaneously emit any kind of radioactivity.
However, the nucleus of a radioisotope is unstable. In an attempt to reach a more
stable arrangement of its protons and neutrons, the nucleus will spontaneously
decay to form a different nucleus. If the number of neutrons changes in the
process, a different isotope is formed. If the number of protons changes in the
process, then an atom of a different element is formed. This decay of the nucleus
is referred to as radioactive decay and is extremely important in creating nuclear
stability, because if the nucleus is unstable, then the atom will disintegrate and
cease to exist.

Protons and neutrons – Nuclear stability:

The atomic nuclei of all chemical elements consist of protons and neutrons. These
two fundamental particles in nuclear stability, known as nucleons, have a similar
mass (proton: 1.00727 amu; neutron: 1.00866 amu), but only the protons are
electrically charged (+1 e). In an atom, the number of protons indicates the atomic
number (Z), while its mass number (A) is equal to the sum of both protons and
neutrons. Atomic nuclei are stable if they contain an adequate number of neutrons,
in relation to the number of protons with their positive charges. As a result, as the
number of protons increases, an increasing ratio of neutrons to protons is needed
to form a stable nucleus. However, if too many or too few neutrons are present
with regard to the optimum ratio, the nucleus becomes unstable and subject to
certain types of radioactive decay. With more than 83 protons, irrespective of the
number of neutrons, the atomic nucleus is unstable and undergoes radioactive
decay. Thus, Bismuth-83 is the heaviest element of which at least one isotope (Bi-
209) is stable. Unstable isotopes decay through various radioactive decay
pathways, most commonly alpha decay, beta decay, or positron decay.

Nuclear Binding Energy:

Nuclear binding energy is an energy required to break up a nucleus into its

components protons and neutrons. In essence, it is a quantitative measure of the
nuclear stability. Nuclear binding energy is derived from the strong nuclear force
and is the energy required to disassemble a nucleus into free unbound neutrons
and protons, strictly so that the relative distances of the particles from each other
are infinite. Nuclear binding energy can be found from the easily measurable
difference in mass of a nucleus, and the sum of the masses of the number of free
neutrons and protons that make up the nucleus. Once this mass difference, called
the mass defect, is known, Einstein's mass-energy equivalence formula E = mc²
can be used to find the binding energy of any nucleus, thus finding the quantitative
measure of nuclear stability for that nuclei.

Band of stability:

Nuclear stability, if plotted on a graph of no. protons vs. no. neutrons, would fall
in an area enclosed by two curved lines known as the band of stability. The band
of stability stops at Bi- 83 because it’s the last stable element. Elements lying
outside the band of stability are too unstable to be made. Also, as the no. protons
increases, the ratio of neutrons to protons increases. This is due to the need for
more neutrons to compensate for the increasing proton repulsions. Isotopes above
and to the left of the band are beta emitters (want to lose a neutron and gain a
proton), Isotopes below and to the right of the band are positron emitters (want to
lose a proton and gain a neutron) and Isotopes above element 83 are alpha emitters
(have too many nucleons).

In the band of stability, atoms are stable. The ratio n/p is 1 for low nuclear masses
and it increases steadily up to 1.5 for high nuclear masses.

C-12 has 6 n and 6 p therefore, n/p =1
Pb-206 has 124 n and 82 p therefore, n/p = 1.5
Stability and Radioactive Decay:

About 2500 different nuclides have been identified and the majority of these are
unstable. A nucleus which has too many or too few neutrons for its number of
protons will be unstable and may spontaneously rearrange its constituent particles
to form a more stable nucleus. During this process the nucleus may emit one or
more particles, such as beta particles , positrons , alpha particles, and if very far
from stability even neutrons and protons. In addition, excess energy may be
released as gamma-rays . When alpha, beta, or positrons are emitted from the
nuclei of a radioactive atom, it changes into a nucleus of another element, causing
instability. Scientists refer to this as transformation. Emission of gamma rays does
not result in transformation, but instead emits energy.

The reason alpha decay occurs is because the nucleus has too many protons which
cause excessive repulsion. In an attempt to reduce the repulsion, a Helium nucleus
is ejected with high energy from an unstable nucleus. The way it works is that the
Helium nuclei are in constant collision with the walls of the nucleus, thus because
of its energy and mass, an alpha particle will tunnel out of the nucleus.

Beta decay occurs when the neutron to proton ratio is too great in the nucleus and
causes instability. In basic beta decay, a neutron is turned into a proton and an
electron. The electron is then emitted. Here's a diagram of beta decay with

Beta particles are identical to electrons and thus have a charge of (-1). This type of
decay process leaves the mass number of the nuclei unchanged. The Beta decay
process sometimes causes positron decay which ultimately is the decay in which a
proton is turned into a neutron. This decay forms a new element that will be down
and to the right on the zone of stability plot, thus being unstable.
Gamma decay occurs because the nucleus is at too high an energy. The nucleus
falls down to a lower energy state and, in the process, emits a high energy photon
known as a gamma particle. Although Gamma decay isn’t directly involved in
nuclear instability, it often accompanies other processes of decay such as alpha,
beta and positron decay which are directly involved in instability.

The Odd-Even Rule

When the numbers of neutrons and protons in the nucleus are even numbers, the
isotope is more stable than when the numbers are odd. Out of all the 264 stable
isotopes, only 5 have odd numbers of protons and neutrons, whereas 157 have
even numbers, and the rest have a mixed number.

This is due to the nucleons spinning. When two protons or neutrons spin whilst
paired their combined energy is less than when they are unpaired.

The Magic Numbers

Another rule of nuclear stability is that isotopes with certain numbers of protons
and neutrons are more stable then the rest. These certain numbers are called the
magic numbers, they consist of: 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, and 126.

The magic numbers derive from calculations of the energy distribution based on
the theoretical structure of the nucleus. According to theory, neutrons and protons
are arranged within the nucleus in shells that are able to accommodate only fixed
maximum numbers of them. When the shells are full, the nucleus is much more
stable than when the shells are only partially filled. The number of neutrons or
protons in the closed shells yields the magic numbers. Doubly magic nuclei, such
as helium-4, oxygen-16, calcium-40, calcium-48, and lead-208, have a number of
protons and neutrons that are the same as the magic number. These doubly magic
nuclei have both full proton shells and full neutron shells, therefore they are
especially stable. As the proton and neutron numbers depart further and further
from the magic numbers, the nuclei are relatively less stable.

Periodic table – Elements, isotopes and stability:

Some interesting facts about nuclear stability are, of the first 82 elements in the
periodic table, 80 have isotopes that are stable. Technetium, Promethium and all
the elements with an atomic number over 82 have isotopes that are known to
decompose through radioactive decay. However, it is possible that some isotopes
that are presently considered stable will be revealed to decay with extremely long
half-lives, as was the case in 2003 with bismuth-209 which had been previously
considered to be stable.

For each of the 80 stable elements the number of the stable isotopes is given. Of
these elements, only (Tin) one has 10 stable isotopes, one (Xenon) has nine
isotopes, five have seven isotopes, eight have six isotopes, nine have five isotopes,
nine have four, five have three stable isotopes, 16 have two stable isotopes, and 26
have a single stable isotope. Thus, there are presently 256 stable nuclides known.

The longest-lived isotope is Ta-180m which is predicted to have a half life in

excess of 1015 years, and has never been observed to decay. Another notable
example is the only naturally-occurring isotope of bismuth, which has been
predicted to be unstable with a very long half-life, but has only recently been
observed to decay. Because of their long half-lives, they are in abundance, and are
called primordial isotopes. All the primordial isotopes are given in order of their
decreasing abundance on Earth.

The other 37 discovered elements have isotopes which are all known to be
radioactive. The elements in this list are ordered according to the lifetime of their
most stable isotope. Of these, four are primordial because they have long enough
half-times to still be found on Earth, while all the others are produced either by
radioactive decay or are synthesized in laboratories and nuclear reactors. Only 13
of these 37 elements have isotopes with a half-life of at least 100 years. Every
known isotope of remaining 24 elements are highly radioactive, they are used in
academic research and sometimes in industry and medicine.


Nuclear stability is a vital part of chemistry, physics and especially in our daily
lives. For without it, we would have no knowledge of some the fundamental parts
of Chemistry and the main science, Physics. We wouldn’t know such things as
radioactive decay, which results from the need for stability, half lives, the band of
stability, nuclear binding energy .etc. Also, without nuclear stability the elements
and isotopes with unstable nucleuses would cease to exist, leaving us with only
256 stable nuclides. This means that we wouldn’t have important elements and
their isotopes, such as uranium-238, plutonium-244 and many more, which all are
very important in our daily lives as sources of energy .etc.
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