Radioactive Source - Changing Decay Rates

Changing Decay Rates

The radioactive decay modes of electron capture and internal conversion are known to be slightly sensitive to chemical and environmental effects which change the electronic structure of the atom, which in turn affects the presence of 1s and 2s electrons that participate in the decay process. A small number of mostly light nuclides are affected. For example, chemical bonds can affect the rate of electron capture to a small degree (in general, less than 1%) depending on the proximity of electrons to the nucleus in beryllium. In 7Be, a difference of 0.9% has been observed between half-lives in metallic and insulating environments. This relatively large effect is because beryllium is a small atom whose valence electrons are in 2s atomic orbitals, which are subject to electron capture in 7Be because (like all s atomic orbitals in all atoms) they naturally penetrate into the nucleus.

In 1992, Jung et al. of the Darmstadt Heavy-Ion Research group observed an accelerated β decay of 163Dy66+. Although neutral 163Dy is a stable isotope, the fully ionized 163Dy66+ undergoes β decay into the K and L shells with a half-life of 47 days.

Rhenium-187 is another spectacular example. 187Re normally beta decays to 187Os with a half-life of 41.6 × 109 y, but studies using fully ionised 187Re atoms (bare nuclei) have found that this can decrease to only 33 y. This is attributed to "bound-state β- decay" of the fully ionised atom – the electron is emitted into the "K-shell" (1s atomic orbital), which cannot occur for neutral atoms in which all low-lying bound states are occupied.

A number of experiments have found that decay rates of other modes of artificial and naturally occurring radioisotopes are, to a high degree of precision, unaffected by external conditions such as temperature, pressure, the chemical environment, and electric, magnetic, or gravitational fields. Comparison of laboratory experiments over the last century, studies of the Oklo natural nuclear reactor (which exemplified the effects of thermal neutrons on nuclear decay), and astrophysical observations of the luminosity decays of distant supernovae (which occurred far away so the light has taken a great deal of time to reach us), for example, strongly indicate that decay rates have been constant (at least to within the limitations of small experimental errors) as a function of time as well.

Recent results suggest the possibility that decay rates might have a weak dependence on environmental factors. It has been suggested that measurements of decay rates of silicon-32, manganese-54, and radium-226 exhibit small seasonal variations (of the order of 0.1%), while the decay of Radon-222 exhibit large 4% peak-to-peak seasonal variations, proposed to be related to either solar flare activity or distance from the Sun. However, such measurements are highly susceptible to systematic errors, and a subsequent paper has found no evidence for such correlations in seven other isotopes (22Na, 44Ti, 108Ag, 121Sn, 133Ba, 241Am, 238Pu), and sets upper limits on the size of any such effects.

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