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Nuclear Power Plant Isar, Germany

Spent nuclear fuel pool

Turbine of a nuclear plant

What Is an Isotope?

Isotopes are atoms whose atomic nuclei have the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons. Not all atoms of the same element are identical, and each of these varieties corresponds to another isotope.

What is an isotope?

Isotopes are different forms of an element whit the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons with practically the same chemical properties. This term indicates that all types of atoms of a chemical element are located in the same place on the periodic table.

According to the isotope definition, each one that belongs to the same element has the same atomic number (Z) but a different atomic mass (A). The atomic number fits with the number of protons in the atomic nucleus of the atom. The mass number fits with the sum of neutrons and protons in the core.

It means that the different isotopes of the same element differ only by the number of neutrons.

What is an isotope?

Although they can have any number of neutrons, there are some preferred combinations of protons and neutrons in the different atoms.

Those that are light tend to equal the number of neutrons and protons, while heavier ones tend to have more neutrons than protons.

Isotopes of Natural Origin

Items that can be found in nature can be in a wide variety of different configurations. The mass that appears in the periodic table of the elements is the average of all found naturally.

Isotopes of hydrogen can come in three different configurations: protium, deuterium, and tritium. These three are naturally occurring and they are used as fuel for nuclear fusion. In the aspect of atomic weapons, they are the essential elements that make up the hydrogen bomb.

Most natural elements are made up of several natural isotopes that can only be separated by physical procedures.

What Are Unstable Isotopes?

The unstable atoms are radioactive: their nuclei change or disintegrate, emit radiation, and become other elements. Their nucleus breaks apart, undergoing radioactive decay

They can be found with excess or lack of neutrons. These atoms may exist for some time, but they are unstable.

What is an isotope?It is precisely this instability that is sought in nuclear fuel. Being unstable makes it much easier to generate nuclear fission reactions.

Usually, what makes an atom unstable is the large nucleus. If a core becomes large enough from the number of neutrons, it will be inconsistent. I order to solve that issue, it tries to eject its neutrons and/or protons to achieve stability.

Isotope-ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) measures the relative abundance of stable isotopes in a sample.

Examples and Uses of Unstable Isotopes

These unstable atoms have many possible applications in our lives.

  • The isotopes of cobalt are used in nuclear medicine to stop the spread of cancer.

  • Radioactive isotopes can be used as tracers in patients to monitor various internal processes. 

  • In industry, these elements can measure the thickness of metal.

  • The unstable atoms of uranium are used as fuel in nuclear power plants.

  • Archeologists use isotopes of carbon for dating. In archeology, it is widespread to use carbon 14 to establish the dating of different elements.

  • Isotopes of uranium, plutonium, and hydrogen are used to build nuclear weapons such as the atomic bomb.

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Published: January 2, 2013
Last review: November 25, 2020