Radiation Types and Uses
Time causes specific types of isotopes—chemical matter that is different from its parent matter—to decay. Isotopes have atoms and when the atoms decay, they emit radiation. Radiation is the path energy takes when it moves from one location to another. Today, radiation is used for a number of reasons. Scientists and doctors use the different types of radiation for a number of medical treatments.
Types of Radiation: Alpha Radiation
Alpha radiation consists of two electrons and neutrons. Each electron and neutron is bound to a helium atom. The particles in alpha radiation are strong. They can cause severe damage to the tissue of living creatures. For example, alpha radiation can cause cancer, odd chemical responses and mutations. Because of this, alpha radiation presents a danger to living animals, including people.
Interestingly, alpha radiation poses the smallest threat to people, as long as a person does not breathe it in or ingest it. Alpha radiation has a hard time passing through several types of barriers, including a sheet of paper or human skin. Magnetic fields also repel alpha radiation. Because alpha radiation is strong, there are many uses for it.
The Uses of Alpha Radiation
The most common use for alpha radiation is the smoke alarm. Alarms use Americium and as the element decays, it releases alpha radiation. The radiation is contained by two small pieces of metal. The pieces of metal receive an electrical current that also passes through the radiation. If smoke reaches the radiation, the alarm sounds.
Types of Radiation: Beta Radiation
Beta radiation consists of excited or high-energy electrons that also attain high speed. Beta radiation also presents more danger for living cells. This type of radiation can pass through cells. Consequently, beta radiation can cause cancer and instant mutation of living cells.
The Uses of Beta Radiation
Many people use aluminum foil to store and bake food. Industrial manufacturers use beta radiation to produce paper and aluminum foil products. This type of radiation cannot pass easily through aluminum and manufacturers use it to create varying thicknesses of paper and aluminum products. For example, in an aluminum foil manufacturing plant, if a radiation-reading machine shows a low reading, the machine presses are instructed to make the foil thinner until the appropriate amount of radiation is read.
Types of Radiation: Gamma Radiation
Gamma radiation is a high frequency, electromagnetic wavelength. Decaying nuclei create gamma radiation to become a more stable atom. This type of radiation penetrates living cells easily. In many situations, gamma radiation is emitted along with beta and alpha radiation. Despite this, some decaying isotopes only create gamma radiation.
The Uses of Gamma Radiation
Gamma radiation offers sterilization and medical benefits. Gamma rays can kill living cells, but they do not cause the mutations and other complications created by alpha and beta radiation. Gamma radiation is used for a number of reasons, including the sterilization of food and medical equipment. People also use gamma rays to find leaks that occur in pipes. The gamma radiation source is placed inside a pipe and someone above ground uses a Geiger-Muller device to locate a radiation spike.
Isotopes are elements that are dissimilar to their “parent” elements. Protons identify each element based on the number present. Isotopes possess a different number of neutrons than their “parent” elements, although they have the same number of protons. The mass number of an atom is the number of nucleons in the nucleus. Each isotope possesses a different mass number.
For example, carbon is an element. It has an atomic number of six. One of the isotopes of carbon is carbon-14. Carbon-14 is found in organic materials—materials that were once alive—and is used by scientists to date samples. Since isotopes decay, carbon-14 is used in archaeology and geology to date multiple organic objects or animals.
Living cells incorporate carbon-14 into their makeup. This happens when animals eat items that contain carbon-14 or through photosynthesis. Once the living cell dies, it can no longer ingest or incorporate the element. The carbon-14 then begins to decay. Using half-life—a process that determines how long the amount of radiation emitted by something is cut in half—scientists can date the origin of an item using carbon-14 or radiocarbon dating. For example, a rope found containing roughly 25% of carbon-14 in the current atmosphere would be roughly 11,460 years old. Radiocarbon dating offers a rough estimate of an organic item’s age.