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If you ever tasted ice cream or had a popsicle you know that you can have different flavors. However even though ice cream can be vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry and popsicles have flavors like cherry or grape, all flavors of ice cream are still ice cream and all flavors of popsicles are popsicles. This is how we answer what are isotopes. Isotopes are different flavors of the same atomic element.
Isotopes are basically the same element with a different number of neutrons. The nucleus of every atom is made up of neutrons and protons. While neutrons don’t have a charge they do important work such as helping to bind the positive charged protons together via the strong force. Isotopes can have different numbers of protons but the basic elemental structure remains the same. For example deuterium will have one more neutron than normal hydrogen but it will still be considered hydrogen. The only thing that will change is the atomic weight.
What is the importance of isotopes? Isotopes have a special set of properties called nuclear properties. For example certain isotopes are more prone to radioactive decay making them ideal materials to use in nuclear reactions. The most famous element with isotopes is uranium. Uranium is one of the key fuels used in nuclear weapons and reactors. However, only a handful of isotopes of this element can be used. Scientists also use some radioactive isotopes as a way to find out the date of ancient objects. For this process the isotope Carbon 14 is used. This is a special isotope of carbon normally found in living things or items made from organic materials.
Carbon dating uses the concept of half life. A half life is the time it takes for have the amount of a radioactive isotope to decay to half its original amount. Since this time is
fixed it can be used to calculate the age of organic material.
Another nuclear property of isotopes involves stable isotopes. These are isotopes that are normally not prone to detectable radioactive decay. This doesn’t mean they don’t undergo radioactive decay. It just means that these isotopes seem to have half lives that are longer than the age of the Earth, 4.6 billion years. At the moment there is no way to find out exactly what their true radioactive properties are.
Isotopes are also find uses in industry and medicine. Certain isotopes of elements may be good for manufacturing and others are being used for advanced imaging of internal organs. Elements with very short half lives are normally used since they produce a very low level of radiation in a reasonable amount of time.
If you’d like more info on Isotopes, check out NASA’s Periodic Table: Atoms, Elements and Isotopes, and here’s a link to the Definition of the Isotope.
We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about The Search for Neutrinos. Listen here, Episode 32: The Search for Neutrinos.