Yes, there are three main types of radiation decay.
1. Alpha Decay
Alpha decay occurs with the nuclear breakdown of heavy and transuranic elements emits alpha particles.
What Is an Alpha Particle?
An alpha particle consists of four tightly bound protons and neutrons, two of each, making them identical to a helium atom.
They move incredibly slowly, in terms of particles, at speeds of 20,000,000 meters per second.
Which Elements Can Produce These Particles?
Alpha particle producers include:
When these elements decay, they set off ionizing radiation into the environment.
Are They Harmful When Released?
Because of the elements' large masses, these particles move slowly through the air and collide with other particles along the way that pull electrons away from the particles, making them highly ionizing.
This makes them fairly safe.
In fact, your clothing and skin will stop them from harming you.
Unless they occur inside the body or enter the body through a wound, the corner of their eye, or the lungs, quick exposure will not harm you.
Is Alpha Decay Useful?
Yes, we can use alpha decay to our benefit!
Smoke detectors utilize alpha radiation to detect fire; smoke consumes the alpha particles causing the alarm to sound.
2. Beta Decay
When either a proton turns neutral, or a neutron gains a positive charge within a nucleus that has too many protons or neutrons.
This change happens via one of three methods:
- proton decay
- neutron decay
- electron capture
This emits beta particles and beta decay occurs.
What Is a Beta Particle?
A beta particle is a single, fast-moving electron, that ejects from an unstable nucleus, despite the fact that electrons do not even live in the nucleus, but in shells surrounding it.
Two types exist. Negative beta decay occurs from the regular neutron emission.
A positron emission occurs with a positively charged electron.
These particles weigh significantly less than their positive counterparts, protons.
What Produces Beta Radiation?
This happens in one of two ways:
- naturally after one or more alpha decay occurs in a chain
- in nuclear fission byproducts.
The nature of production puts these particles into a separate category than alpha particles.
Are They Harmful?
Yes, because they move extremely fast and therefore and are less ionizing than alpha particles.
So, they travel further through the air and deeper through layers of clothing and skin, causing bad burns to exposed areas.
Can We Use This?
Though these particles can harm us, they can also heal us.
An incredibly important use of beta radiation is in the treatment of certain cancers, like bone, since it can penetrate the skin deeply.
The same particles that cause burns on our body, attack the cancer cells and kill them when the specialist targets them.
3. Gamma Decay
Also commonly called gamma emission, the spontaneous process generally follows the beta decay and occurs due to an unstable nucleus depleting the extra energy through an electromagnetic process.
This results in a gamma ray.
What Is a Gamma Ray?
Super energetic photons made up of electromagnetic energy, create a gamma ray.
Considering all the products of radioactive decay, gamma rays possess the highest energy and shortest wavelength.
Are They Harmful?
Extremely, due to their supercharged nature. Not only can gamma rays pass through skin, but they pass through lead with ease.
They alter the genetic makeup of the body, making exposed persons extremely ill and causing life threatening effects, among other problems.
Can We Harness Their Power for Good?
Yes, they prove useful when harnessed with extreme caution. Some uses include:
- investigating oil wells deep beneath the ground
- sterilizing surgical equipment
- imaging internal organs and blood flow for special testing
- gauging aircraft fuel