What is Alpha Decay – Alpha Radioactivity – Definition

Alpha decay or α-decay represents the disintegration of a parent nucleus to a daughter through the emission of the nucleus of a helium atom. Alpha decay is a quantum tunneling process. In order to be emitted, the alpha particle must penetrate a potential barrier. Radiation Dosimetry

Alpha decay (or α-decay and also alpha radioactivity) represents the disintegration of a parent nucleus to a daughter through the emission of the nucleus of a helium atom. This transition can be characterized as:

Alpha Decay - Alpha Radioactivity

As can be seen from the figure, alpha particle is emitted in alpha decay. Alpha particles are energetic nuclei of helium. Alpha particles consist of two protons and two neutrons bound together into a particle identical to a helium nucleus. Alpha particles are relatively large and carry a double positive charge. They are not very penetrating and a piece of paper can stop them. They travel only a few centimeters but deposit all their energies along their short paths.

Uranium 238 decay.In practice, this mode of decay has only been observed in nuclides considerably heavier than nickel, with the lightest known alpha emitters being the lightest isotopes (mass numbers 106–110) of tellurium (element 52). In nuclear reactors alpha decay occurs for example in the fuel (alpha decay of heavy nuclei). Alpha particles are commonly emitted by all of the heavy radioactive nuclei occuring in the nature (uranium, thorium or radium), as well as the transuranic elements (neptunium, plutonium or americium).

Theory of Alpha Decay – Quantum Tunneling

Among the variety of channels in which a nucleus decays, alpha decay has been one of the most studied. The alpha decay channel in heavy and super heavy nuclei has provided information on the fundamental properties of nuclei far from stability, such as their ground state energies and the structure of their nuclear levels.

Alpha decay is a quantum tunneling process. In order to be emitted, the alpha particle must penetrate a potential barrier. This is similar to cluster decay, in which an atomic nucleus emits a small “cluster” of neutrons and protons (e.g. 12C).

The height of the Coulomb barrier for nuclei of A « 200 is about 20-25 MeV. The alpha particles emitted in nuclear decay have typical energies of about 5 MeV. On the one hand an incoming 5 MeV alpha particle is scattered from a heavy nucleus and it cannot penetrate the Coulomb barrier and get sufficiently close to the nucleus to interact via the strong force. On the other hand, a 5 MeV alpha particle bound in a nuclear potential well is able to tunnel that same Coulomb barrier.

alpha decay - quantum tunnelingBy 1928, George Gamow (and independently by Ronald Gurney and Edward Condon) had solved the theory of alpha decay via quantum tunneling. They assumed that the alpha particle and the daughter nucleus exist within the parent nucleus prior to its dissociation, namely the decay of quasistationary states (QS).  A quasistationary state is defined as a long-lived state that eventually decays. Initially, the alpha cluster oscillates in the potential of the daughter nucleus, with the Coulomb potential preventing their separation. The alpha particle is trapped in a potential well by the nucleus. Classically, it is forbidden to escape, but according to the (then) newly discovered principles of quantum mechanics, it has a tiny (but non-zero) probability of “tunneling” through the barrier and appearing on the other side to escape the nucleus. Using the tunneling mechanism, Gamow, Condon and Gurney calculated the penetrability of the tunneling α particle through the Coulomb barrier, finding the lifetimes of some α emitting nuclei. The main success of this model was the reproduction of the semi-empirical Geiger-Nuttall law that expresses the lifetimes of the α emitters in terms of the energies of the released α particles. It must be noted, that other common forms of decay (e.g. beta decay) are governed by the interplay between both the nuclear force and the electromagnetic force.

Special Reference: W.S.C. Williams. Nuclear and Particle Physics. Clarendon Press; 1 edition, 1991, ISBN: 978-0198520467.

Geiger-Nuttall Law

Geiger-Nuttall law is a semi-empirical law that expresses the lifetime (half-life) of the alpha emitter in terms of the energy of the released alpha particle. In other words, it states that short-lived isotopes emit more energetic alpha particles than long-lived ones. This rule was formulated by by Hans Geiger and John Mitchell Nuttall in 1911 prior to the development of the theoretical formulation. Geiger-Nuttall law can be mathematically expressed as:

Geiger-Nuttall law - equation

where a and b are empirical constants that are found from logarithmic plots of experimental data. Rα represents the linear range of alpha particle, thus it is a direct measure of kinetic energy of the alpha particle. The width of the resonance (Γ) is generally related to the mean lifetime (τ) of the excited nucleus by the relation: Γ = ℏ / τ

Conservation Laws in Alpha Decay

In analyzing nuclear reactions, we apply the many conservation laws. Nuclear reactions are subject to classical conservation laws for charge, momentum, angular momentum, and energy(including rest energies).  Additional conservation laws, not anticipated by classical physics, are:

Certain of these laws are obeyed under all circumstances, others are not. We have accepted conservation of energy and momentum. In all the examples given we assume that the number of protons and the number of neutrons is separately conserved. We shall find circumstances and conditions in which  this rule is not true. Where we are considering non-relativistic nuclear reactions, it is essentially true. However, where we are considering relativistic nuclear energies or those involving the weak interactions, we shall find that these principles must be extended.

Some conservation principles have arisen from theoretical considerations, others are just empirical relationships. Notwithstanding, any reaction not expressly forbidden by the conservation laws will generally occur, if perhaps at a slow rate. This expectation is based on quantum mechanics. Unless the barrier between the initial and final states is infinitely high, there is always a non-zero probability that a system will make the transition between them.

For purposes of analyzing non-relativistic reactions, it is sufficient to note four of the fundamental laws governing these reactions.

  1. Conservation of nucleons. The total number of nucleons before and after a reaction are the same.
  2. Conservation of charge. The sum of the charges on all the particles before and after a reaction are the same
  3. Conservation of momentum. The total momentum of the interacting particles before and after a reaction are the same.
  4. Conservation of energy. Energy, including rest mass energy, is conserved in nuclear reactions.

Reference: Lamarsh, John R. Introduction to Nuclear engineering 2nd Edition

Alpha Decay – Q-value

In nuclear and particle physics the energetics of nuclear reactions is determined by the Q-value of that reaction. The Q-value of the reaction is defined as the difference between the sum of the rest masses of the initial reactants and the sum of the masses of the final products, in energy units (usually in MeV).

Consider a typical reaction, in which the projectile a and the target A gives place to two products, B and b. This can also be expressed in the notation that we used so far, a + A → B + b, or even in a more compact notation, A(a,b)B.

See also: E=mc2

The Q-value of this reaction is given by:

Q = [ma + mA – (mb + mB)]c2

When describing alpha decay (a reaction without projectile), the disintegrating nucleus is usually referred to as the parent nucleus and the nucleus remaining after the event as the daughter nucleus. The total rest mass of the daughter nucleus and of the nuclear radiation released in an alpha disintegration, mDaughter + mRadiation, is always less than that of the parent nucleus, mparent. The mass-energy difference,

Q = [mparent – (mDaughter + mRadiation)]c2

appears as the disintegration energy, liberated in the process. For example, the Q-value of typical alpha decay is:

alpha decay - q-value - example

The disintegration energy of about 5 MeV is typical kinetic energy of alpha particle. In order to fulfill the law of conservation of momentum, most of the disintegration energy must appear as the kinetic energy of alpha particle. After an alpha or beta decay, the daughter nucleus is often left in an excited energy state. In order to stabilize itself, it subsequently emits high-energy photons, γ-rays.


Radiation Protection:

  1. Knoll, Glenn F., Radiation Detection and Measurement 4th Edition, Wiley, 8/2010. ISBN-13: 978-0470131480.
  2. Stabin, Michael G., Radiation Protection and Dosimetry: An Introduction to Health Physics, Springer, 10/2010. ISBN-13: 978-1441923912.
  3. Martin, James E., Physics for Radiation Protection 3rd Edition, Wiley-VCH, 4/2013. ISBN-13: 978-3527411764.
  5. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.

Nuclear and Reactor Physics:

  1. J. R. Lamarsh, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Theory, 2nd ed., Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA (1983).
  2. J. R. Lamarsh, A. J. Baratta, Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, 3d ed., Prentice-Hall, 2001, ISBN: 0-201-82498-1.
  3. W. M. Stacey, Nuclear Reactor Physics, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, ISBN: 0- 471-39127-1.
  4. Glasstone, Sesonske. Nuclear Reactor Engineering: Reactor Systems Engineering, Springer; 4th edition, 1994, ISBN: 978-0412985317
  5. W.S.C. Williams. Nuclear and Particle Physics. Clarendon Press; 1 edition, 1991, ISBN: 978-0198520467
  6. G.R.Keepin. Physics of Nuclear Kinetics. Addison-Wesley Pub. Co; 1st edition, 1965
  7. Robert Reed Burn, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Operation, 1988.
  8. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.
  9. Paul Reuss, Neutron Physics. EDP Sciences, 2008. ISBN: 978-2759800414.

See also:

Radioactive Decay

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