General Chemistry is a free introductory textbook on chemistry. See the editorial for more information....

Radioactive Decay

Author: Andrew R. Barron

Once the picture of a nuclear atom was discovered it became clear that the energy released must come from the nucleus. It is for this reason that atomic energy became generally known as nuclear energy rather than atomic energy.(1)

If mass is lost from the nucleus the following questions must be asked:

  • Where does it go?
  • What happens to the remaining mass?
  • What happens to the nucleus?

William Crookes (1832 – 1919).
In 1900 William Crookes, working at what is now Imperial College, London, was investigating the chemistry of uranium. He found that if uranium was purified it showed very low (or no) radioactivity. This was counter to previous studies. However, the uranium sample was left for some time its radioactivity increased to the levels previously associated with samples of uranium! Soddy and Rutherford showed that thorium behaved the same as uranium, and they proposed that radioactive disintegration occurred. They proposed that uranium is converted to other more radioactive elements and eventually to lead (see Radioactive Decay Series).

Based upon the periodic table the difference between uranium and lead would suggest that sequential radioactive disintegration would involve 10 elements. However, by 1914 it was found that there were more than 30 steps between U and Pb. The only way to explain this is the concept of isotopes.

The word isotope is derived from the Greek, meaning “same place”. Isotopes are any of the different types of atoms (nuclides) of the same chemical element, each having a different atomic mass (mass number) but the same atomic number. Once the concept of isotopes are realized then the reason for all extra elements for the radioactive disintegration.

(1) In the UK the government body, founded in 1954, that oversees nuclear energy is called the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA).

Last Update: 2011-02-20