Radioactive decay is the process by which an unstable atomic nucleus loses energy by radiation.
A material containing unstable nuclei is considered radioactive. Three of the most common types of decay are alpha decay (𝛼-decay), beta decay (𝛽-decay), and gamma decay (𝛾-decay), all of which involve emitting one or more particles. The weak force is the mechanism that is responsible for beta decay, while the other two are governed by the usual electromagnetic and strong forces.
Radioactive decay is a stochastic (i.e. random) process at the level of single atoms. According to quantum theory, it is impossible to predict when a particular atom will decay, regardless of how long the atom has existed.
However, for a significant number of identical atoms, the overall decay rate can be expressed as a decay constant or as half-life. The half-lives of radioactive atoms have a huge range; from nearly instantaneous to far longer than the age of the universe.
The decaying nucleus is called the parent radionuclide and the process produces at least one daughter nuclide. Except for gamma decay or internal conversion from a nuclear excited state, the decay is a nuclear transmutation resulting in a daughter containing a different number of protons or neutrons (or both). When the number of protons changes, an atom of a different chemical element is created.Alpha decay occurs when the nucleus ejects an alpha particle (helium nucleus).
- Beta decay occurs in two ways;
- (i) beta-minus decay, when the nucleus emits an electron and an antineutrino in a process that changes a neutron to a proton.
- (ii) beta-plus decay, when the nucleus emits a positron and a neutrino in a process that changes a proton to a neutron, also known as positron emission.
- In gamma decay a radioactive nucleus first decays by the emission of an alpha or beta particle. The daughter nucleus that results is usually left in an excited state and it can decay to a lower energy state by emitting a gamma ray photon.
- In neutron emission, extremely neutron-rich nuclei, formed due to other types of decay or after many successive neutron captures, occasionally lose energy by way of neutron emission, resulting in a change from one isotope to another of the same element.
- In electron capture, the nucleus may capture an orbiting electron, causing a proton to convert into a neutron in a process called electron capture. A neutrino and a gamma ray are subsequently emitted.
- In cluster decay and nuclear fission, a nucleus heavier than an alpha particle is emitted.
By contrast, there are radioactive decay processes that do not result in a nuclear transmutation. The energy of an excited nucleus may be emitted as a gamma ray in a process called gamma decay, or that energy may be lost when the nucleus interacts with an orbital electron causing its ejection from the atom, in a process called internal conversion.
Another type of radioactive decay results in products that vary, appearing as two or more “fragments” of the original nucleus with a range of possible masses.
This decay, called spontaneous fission, happens when a large unstable nucleus spontaneously splits into two (or occasionally three) smaller daughter nuclei, and generally leads to the emission of gamma rays, neutrons, or other particles from those products.