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Encyclopedia > Isotopes

Isotopes are atoms of a chemical element whose nuclei have the same atomic number, Z, but different atomic weights, A. The word isotope, meaning at the same place, comes from the fact that isotopes are located at the same place on the periodic table.

The atomic number corresponds to the number of protons in an atom. Thus, isotopes of a particular element contain the same number of protons. The difference in atomic weights results from differences in the number of neutrons in the atomic nuclei. In scientific nomenclature, isotopes are specified by the name of the particular element by a hyphen and the number of nucleons (protons and neutrons) in the atomic nucleus (e.g., helium-3, carbon-12, carbon-14, iron-57, uranium-238). In symbolic form, the number of nucleons is denoted as a superscripted prefix to the chemical symbol (e.g., 3He, 12C, 14C, 57Fe, 238U).

Collectively, the isotopes of the elements form the set of nuclides. A nuclide is a particular type of nucleus (characterised by A and Z). Strictly speaking, we should say that an element such as fluorine consists of one nuclide rather than that it has one isotope. Similarly, the tables at the foot of this article are tables of nuclides.

In a neutral atom, the number of electrons equals the number of protons. Thus, isotopes of a given element also have the same number of electrons and the same electronic structure. Because the chemical behavior of an atom is largely determined by its electronic structure, isotopes exhibit nearly identical chemical behavior. The primary exception is that, due to their larger masses, heavier isotopes tend to react somewhat more slowly than lighter isotopes of the same element. This "mass effect" is most pronounced for protium (1H) and deuterium (the common name of 2H), because deuterium has twice the mass of protium. For heavier elements the relative mass difference between isotopes is much less, and the mass effect is usually negligible.

Although isotopes exhibit nearly identical electronic and chemical behavior, their nuclear behavior varies dramatically. Atomic nuclei consist of protons and neutrons bound together by the strong nuclear force. Because protons are positively charged, they repel each other. Neutrons, which are electrically neutral, allow some separation between the positively charged protons, reducing the electrostatic repulsion and stabilizing the nucleus. For this reason neutrons are necessary for two or more protons to be bound into a nucleus. As the number of protons increases, additional neutrons are needed to form a stable nucleus, for example, although the neutron/proton ratio of 3He is 1/2, the neutron/proton ratio of 238U is >3/2. However, if too many neutrons are present, the nucleus becomes unstable.

Because isotopes of a given element have different numbers of neutrons they also have different neutron/proton ratios. This affects the nuclear stability, with the result that some isotopes are subject to nuclear decay. The decay of these radioactive isotopes (radioisotopes for short) is an important topic in nuclear physics. By studying the manner in which this decay occurs, physicists gain insight into the properties of the atomic nucleus.

In general, several isotopes of each element can be found in nature. Stable isotopes are by far the most abundant; however, significant quantities of long-lived unstable isotopes, such as uranium-238, can also be found. Small amounts of short-lived radioactive isotopes are also present in nature. These arise as products of the decay of larger long-lived radioactive nuclei. The atomic mass for an element in the periodic table is the average of the natural abundance of the isotopes of that element.

The amounts of the various isotopes on earth is ultimately the result of the amounts formed in stars and supernovae, and the subsequent decay patterns of the radioactive nuclei formed in these processes. After that, the formation of the solar system also influenced heavily on the proportions of different isotopes found here, since lighter nuclei was more easily blown away towards the outer parts of the solar system, by the solar wind immediately after the sun was formed. This is also why the gas giants are located further from the sun. - The baseball team from The Simpsons are also called The Isotopes, a reference to the fact that most inhabitants of Springfield are employees of the Nuclear Power Plant.

Applications of isotopes

Several applications exist that capitalize on properties of the various isotopes of a given element. One of the most common applications is as a tracer or marker in a technique called isotopic labeling. Normally, atoms of a given element are indistinguishable from each other. However, by using isotopes of different masses, they can be distinguished by mass spectroscopy or infrared spectroscopy, which is mass sensitive because heavier atoms vibrate at different frequencies than lighter atoms.

An example of the use of isotopic labeling is the study of phenol (C6H5OH) in water. Upon adding phenol to deuterated water (water containing D2O in addition to the usual H2O), researchers observed the substitution of deuterium for the hydrogen in the hydroxyl group (C6H5OD), indicating that phenol readily undergoes hydrogen-exchange reactions with water. Only the hydroxyl group was affected, indicating that the other 5 hydrogen atoms did not participate in these exchange reactions.

Isotopic substitution can also be used to determine the mechanism of a reaction via the kinetic isotope effect.

In addition to isotopic labeling, several forms of spectroscopy rely on the unique nuclear properties of specific isotopes. For example, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy can be used only for isotopes with a nonzero nuclear spin. The most common isotopes used with NMR spectroscopy are 1H, 2D, 13C, and 31P. Mossbauer spectroscopy also relies on the nuclear transitions of specific isotopes, such as 57Fe.

The isotopic composition of elements is different on different planets. This fact makes it possible to determine the origin of meteorites. Some meteorites have been classified as lunar or martian meteorites.

Radioactive isotopes also have important uses. Nuclear power and nuclear weapons development require relatively large quantities of specific isotopes. The process of isotope separation represents a significant technological challenge.

Radioisotopes are also frequently used in medicine, biochemistry, and chemistry as tracers. Small quantities of the radioisotopes can be readily detected due to characteristic emissions by the decaying nuclei.

The natural radioactive decay of 14C enables Radiocarbon dating. 14C is created in the atmosphere when cosmic rays strike CO2, which is taken it by plants and consumed by animals. Based on the residual amount of radioactivity in a biological sample, the time the animal stopped taking in carbon, i.e. died, can be estimated.

The stability of the 12C isotope and its abundance has led it to be selected as the standard for the atomic mass unit, (equals one twelfth of one carbon atom) and thus also in the definition of the Mole, an SI base unit.

See also

  • Isotope table (divided) - table of all known isotopes
  • Isotope table (complete)
  • List of particles
  • Isotopes are nuclides having the same number of protons; compare:
  • Isotones are nuclides having the same number of neutrons.
  • Isobars are nuclides having the same mass number, i.e. sum of protons plus neutrons.
  • Nuclear Isomers are different excited states of the same type of nucleus. A transition from one isomer to another is accompanied by emission or absorption of a gamma ray, or the process of internal conversion. (Not to be confused with chemical isomers.)

External links

  • Atomic weights of all isotopes (http://physics.nist.gov/cgi-bin/Compositions/stand_alone.pl?ele=&ascii=html&isotype=some)

  Results from FactBites:
What is an Isotope? (400 words)
An isotope is a variant on a basic element, a substance made of atoms with a different number of neutrons than is typical.
Besides the occasional tendency to be radioactive, an isotope tends to behave similarly to the natural element it is a variant on.
Carbon-14, which comprises a trace amount of all carbon on earth, is a radioactive isotope with concentration levels that can be used to determine the precise age of an artifact or fossil.
International Isotope Society / Home (270 words)
The International Isotope Society is a chartered, international organization independent of special interests groups or companies, makers or users of isotopes (radioactive or stable), etc. It is run entirely by the enthusiastic and unselfish dedicated volunteer work of its members.
The mission and principal aims of the International Isotope Society are to encourage throughout the scientific community the advancement in knowledge of the synthesis, measurement, and applications of isotopes and isotopically labeled compounds through the effective promotion of awareness and actions on key issues by providing a communications network and forum through its membership.
Overall, the International Isotope Society aims to promote the uses of isotopes and isotopically labeled compounds for studies to further improve the quality of life worldwide.
  More results at FactBites »



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