Types of Decay
As for types of radioactive radiation, it was found that an electric or magnetic field could split such emissions into three types of beams. The rays were given the alphabetic names alpha, beta, and gamma, in order of their ability to penetrate matter. While alpha decay was seen only in heavier elements (atomic number 52, tellurium, and greater), the other two types of decay were seen in all of the elements. Spontaneous decay is evident in elements of atomic number ninety or greater.
In analyzing the nature of the decay products, it was obvious from the direction of electromagnetic forces induced upon the radiations by external magnetic and electric fields that alpha particles carried a positive charge, beta particles carried a negative charge, and gamma rays were neutral. From the magnitude of deflection, it was clear that alpha particles were much more massive than beta particles. Passing alpha particles through a very thin glass window and trapping them in a discharge tube allowed researchers to study the emission spectrum of the resulting gas, and ultimately prove that alpha particles are helium nuclei. Other experiments showed the similarity between classical beta radiation and cathode rays: They are both streams of electrons. Likewise gamma radiation and X-rays were found to be similar high-energy electromagnetic radiation.
The relationship between the types of decays also began to be examined: For example, gamma decay was almost always found associated with other types of decay, and occurred at about the same time, or afterward. Gamma decay as a separate phenomenon (with its own half-life, now termed isomeric transition), was found in natural radioactivity to be a result of the gamma decay of excited metastable nuclear isomers, which were in turn created from other types of decay.
Although alpha, beta, and gamma radiations were found most commonly, other types of decay were eventually discovered. Shortly after the discovery of the positron in cosmic ray products, it was realized that the same process that operates in classical beta decay can also produce positrons (positron emission). In an analogous process, instead of emitting positrons and neutrinos, some proton-rich nuclides were found to capture their own atomic electrons (electron capture), and emit only a neutrino (and usually also a gamma ray). Each of these types of decay involves the capture or emission of nuclear electrons or positrons, and acts to move a nucleus toward the ratio of neutrons to protons that has the least energy for a given total number of nucleons (neutrons plus protons).
A theoretical process of positron capture (analogous to electron capture) is possible in antimatter atoms, but has not been observed since the complex antimatter atoms are not available. This would require antimatter atoms at least as complex as beryllium-7, which is the lightest known isotope of normal matter to undergo decay by electron capture.
Shortly after the discovery of the neutron in 1932, Enrico Fermi realized that certain rare decay reactions yield neutrons as a decay particle (neutron emission). Isolated proton emission was eventually observed in some elements. It was also found that some heavy elements may undergo spontaneous fission into products that vary in composition. In a phenomenon called cluster decay, specific combinations of neutrons and protons other than alpha particles (helium nuclei) were found to be spontaneously emitted from atoms.
Other types of radioactive decay that emit previously seen particles were found, but by different mechanisms. An example is internal conversion, which results in electron and sometimes high-energy photon emission, even though it involves neither beta nor gamma decay. This type of decay (like isomeric transition gamma decay) does not transmute one element to another.
Rare events that involve a combination of two beta-decay type events happening simultaneously (see below) are known. Any decay process that does not violate conservation of energy or momentum laws (and perhaps other particle conservation laws) is permitted to happen, although not all have been detected. An interesting example (discussed in a final section) is bound state beta decay of rhenium-187. In this process, an inverse of electron capture, beta electron-decay of the parent nuclide is not accompanied by beta electron emission, because the beta particle has been captured into the K-shell of the emitting atom. An antineutrino, however, is emitted.
Read more about this topic: Radioactive Decay
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