Nuclear Chemistry

Nuclear chemistry is the sub of chemistry that is concerned with changes in the nucleus of elements and dealing with radioactivity, nuclear processes and nuclear properties. Nuclear chemistry is a branch of chemistry in which the nuclear chemists frequently cover several areas such as organic, analytical, inorganic and physical chemistry. 

Nuclear chemistry is concerned with the changes happening in the nucleus of the atom. It includes the study of the chemical effects resulting from the absorption of radiation within living animals, plants, and other materials. The study of the actinides and trans-actinide elements has involved the joint efforts of nuclear and inorganic chemists in extending knowledge of the periodic table. 

Nuclear analytical techniques are an important part of the arsenal of the modern analytical chemist. Nuclear chemistry includes the study of the production and use of radioactive sources for a range of processes. The emission of radiations from a radioactive material comes from the fact that a radioactive isotope is unstable and it converts to a stable isotope by emitting radiations like a, ß positron and Gamma -rays, etc.


What is Nuclear Chemistry?

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  1. A nuclear reaction is different from a chemical reaction.
  2. In a chemical reaction, atoms of the reactants combine by a rearrangement of extra nuclear electrons but the nuclei of the atoms remain unchanged.
  3. In a nuclear reaction, however, it is the nucleus of the atom which is involved.
  4. The number of protons or neutrons in the nucleus changes to form a new element itself.
"A study of the nuclear changes in atoms is termed as Nuclear chemistry".So, nuclear chemistry is the study of phenomenon involving nuclear reactions, like radioactivity. Nuclear chemistry also deals with the energy released from nuclear reactions, and its usage.

History of Nuclear Chemistry

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The history of Nuclear chemistry dates back to 1895, with the discovery of X- rays by William Roentgen. In early 1896, Henri Becquerel was carrying out a series of experiments on fluorescence. He had used photographic film between two pieces of paper.

When he developed the photographic film, he found that it had the same appearance as if it had been exposed to light. And after this, by accident, he developed the photographic plates, which was kept in the same drawer as Uranium. To his surprise, the plate had been blackened. He thought that it was a new type of fluorescence. But, actually, he had come across a phenomenon of radioactivity. So, accidentally, radioactivity was discovered by Henri Becquerel.

The name radioactivity, was coined some time later by Marie Curie. She won the Nobel prize for her discovery in 1903 with Henri Becquerel and Pierre Curie. Thereby evolved the branch of chemistry called Nuclear chemistry.

The discovery of radioactivity also brought into account many other processes, such as fission and fusion, which again were used as a source of energy in many reactors. And also, with the discovery of radioactivity and other phenomenon related to radioactive elements, many new elements were brought into light.

Nuclear Symbol Chemistry

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There are various types of radiations involved in Nuclear chemistry. They have their own representations. Let us look into these radiations and their symbols.

Types of radiations and nuclear symbols

The radioactive radiations are of three types. They were sorted out by Rutherford in 1902, by passing them between two oppositely charged plates. The ones bending towards negative plate carried positive charge and were named as alpha rays. Those bending towards the positive plate and carrying negative charge were called as beta rays. The third type of radiation, being uncharged, passed straight through the electric field and were named gamma rays.

Symbols of these rays

1. Alpha rays

Represented as α. These are positively charged rays. Since the alpha rays have a mass of 4 amu and charge _2, they are actually helium nuclei. So, they are also represented as

4 2He or 4 2 α

2. Beta Rays

Negatively charged rays. They are represented as: β. Since they have a mass similar to electron, they are also represented as e-. They have a unit negative charge.

0-1e or 0-1 β

3. Gamma rays

These rays are neutral, with no charge. They are simply represented by the symbol : γ
  • A number of elements such as Uranium, and radium are unstable.
  • Their atomic nucleus breaks on its own accord to form a smaller atomic nucleus of another element.
  • The protons and neutrons, in the unstable nucleus, regroup to give the new nucleus.
  • This causes the release of excess particles and energy from original nucleus, which we know as radiation.
  • The elements whose atomic nucleus emits radiation are said to be radioactive.
Radioactive decay can be defined as: " The spontaneous breaking down of the unstable atoms is termed radioactive disintegration or radioactive decay."
" The disintegration or decay of unstable atoms accompanied by emission of radiation is called radioactivity".The radioactive radiations can be detected and measured by a number of methods. Some important methods are:
  • Cloud chamber method
  • Geiger-Muller counter
  • Ionization chamber method
  • Scintillation counter method
Three types of radioactive decay occurs
  1. Alpha decay
  2. Beta decay
  3. Gamma decay
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Nuclear Waste Facts

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The major concern, on using the nuclear materials for any purpose, is their disposal. It is a known fact that the nuclear reactions, or rather the radioactivity, does not stop anytime. It is a spontaneous process, therefore, continues even after the material has been discarded. Thus, the disposal of the nuclear waste has to be done with utmost care.

The products of fission, like Ba-139 and Kr-92 are themselves radioactive. They emit dangerous radiations for several hundred years. The waste is usually packed in concrete barrels which are buried deep in the earth or dumped in sea. But the fear is that any leakage and corrosion of the storage vessels may eventually contaminate the water supplies.

Uses of Nuclear Chemistry

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Nuclear chemistry is the study of the chemical and physical properties of elements as influenced by changes in the structure of the atomic nucleus. Nuclear chemistry finds its uses in many fields. Though there are disadvantages in the form of atom bombs, nuclear reactivity for war fare, radioactive waste, etc. Nuclear chemistry positively contributes to our daily lives and is useful. Some of them are:

1. Light -water nuclear power plant
  • Most commercial power plants today are light-water reactors. U-235 is used as a fuel here.
  • The Uranium -235 rods are submerged into it.
  • A lot of energy is produced from the reaction in the nuclear reactor.
  • A reactor, once started, can supply power for many generations.
  • About 15% of consumable electricity in U.S.A is provided by Light-water reactors.
2. Breeder reactor
This is again another reactor which taps energy from nuclear reactions. Here too, U-235 is used for the production of electricity.

3. Radioactive dating

  • This is a very important use of radioactivity.
  • The age of an old piece of wood can be determined using radioactive dating technique.
  • A plant, while alive, takes up both normal carbon, C-12 and radioactive carbon, C-14.
  • When the plant dies, uptake of carbon from atmosphere stops.
  • Though, the C-12 does not show any change, the decay of C-14 starts with the release of Beta radiation.
  • This helps in detecting of the age of a wood piece.
4. Medicine
Many radionuclide are used in medicine to detect cancerous cells, any other defect in organs, etc. These radioactive elements are combined with other compounds, or elements and administered orally. And, after some time, the path traveled by these radio isotopes are detected using a detector. The complete length traveled by it can be seen and the problems can be easily detected.

More topics in Nuclear Chemistry
Nuclear Energy Thermonuclear Fusion
Radioactivity Nuclear Reactors
Nuclear Power
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