Atoms, the building blocks of matter, are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. However, there are different versions of the same chemical element. These variants, known as isotopes, open the doors to a world of atomic diversity and unique properties.
In this article, we will explore some notable examples. From isotopes used in dating fossils and ancient rocks, to those that power us in nuclear reactors, we'll discover the characteristics and applications of some of these unique atomic elements.
Uranium isotopes are particularly relevant because they are used as fuel for nuclear power plants that use fission reactors. Deuterium and tritium, which are mentioned below, are the isotopes that are being worked on in nuclear fusion reactors.
Uranium-235 is the most common isotope of uranium and is of great interest due to its special nuclear properties. Uranium-235 is fissile, meaning it can be split into two smaller nuclei when bombarded by neutrons.
This fission ability is essential in the production of nuclear energy and the manufacture of nuclear weapons. In nuclear power reactors, enriched uranium-235 is used, that is, uranium that contains a higher proportion of this isotope. When uranium-235 atoms are split by nuclear fission, they release vast amounts of energy and generate heat that is used to produce electricity.
In addition, it also has applications in the production of radioactive isotopes used in medicine, such as technetium-99m.
Uranium-235 has been the subject of intense investigation and control due to its potential use in nuclear weapons.
It is the most common isotope of uranium and is used in radiometric dating of ancient rocks and minerals. It is also used in radiation shielding and in nuclear medicine, in contrast applications in medical imaging such as positron emission tomography (PET).
This isotope of plutonium is used in the production of nuclear weapons and in nuclear fission reactors. It has also been used in radioisotope generators and as a power source in spacecraft such as the Voyager probes.
Hydrogen-2 (2H) or deuterium
It is used in the production of heavy water (deuterium oxide), which is important in nuclear reactors as a moderator or coolant. It is also used in magnetic resonance imaging (NMR) studies to obtain information about molecular structure.
Hydrogen-3 (3H) or tritium
It is used in the production of hydrogen bombs and in nuclear fission devices. It is also used in scientific research, in radioactive markers and tracers, and in the lighting industry, as a radioluminescent light source.
This radioactive isotope of carbon is used in radiocarbon dating, a technique used to determine the age of archaeological and geological objects. Carbon-14 forms in the atmosphere and is incorporated into living organisms. By measuring the amount of carbon-14 remaining in an object, one can estimate how long it has been since the organism died.
Iodine-131 is a radioactive isotope used in nuclear medicine. It is used to treat certain disorders of the thyroid gland, such as hyperthyroidism and thyroid cancer. Iodine-131 emits beta and gamma radiation, which helps kill abnormal or cancerous thyroid cells.
This radioactive isotope of cobalt is used in radiation therapy for the treatment of cancer. The gamma radiation emitted by cobalt-60 targets cancer cells, damaging their DNA and stopping their growth. It is a common radiation source in linear accelerators used in radiation therapy centers.
Technetium-99m is an isotope used in nuclear medicine for diagnostic imaging. It is used in scintigraphic scanners to visualize organs and tissues, allowing disease detection and evaluation of function and blood circulation in the body.