Radioactive Isotope: Definition & Uses

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  • 0:00 What Are Radioactive Isotopes?
  • 1:19 Uses Of Radioactive…
  • 3:08 Uses Of Radioactive…
  • 3:45 Uses Of Radioactive…
  • 5:24 Uses Of Radioactive…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nissa Garcia

Nissa has a masters degree in chemistry and has taught high school science and college level chemistry.

There are over 1,000 known radioactive isotopes of elements in the periodic table. There are many applications of radioactive isotopes in various fields. In this lesson, we will learn all about radioactive isotopes and their uses.

What Are Radioactive Isotopes?

Before we go into discussing radioactive isotopes, let's recall what an isotope is. Let's look at the picture of an atom below. It has a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons with electrons around the nucleus. All the atoms of an element have the same number of protons, but the number of their neutrons can differ. If this happens, then we can call these isotopes of an element. Isotopes have the same number of protons, but they differ in the number of neutrons.

Nucleus: Made of Protons and Neutrons

For instance, below, we have the isotopes of hydrogen. Here, you can see that the number of protons and electrons are the same, but for the three isotopes of hydrogen, the number of neutrons differ.

Isotopes of Hydrogen

Now that we've recalled what isotopes are, what makes them radioactive? When I think about the word 'radioactive', I think about a unique, unstable type of energy. If an isotope has an unstable nucleus that breaks down to emit radiation, then these are what we call radioactive isotopes, also known as radioisotopes.

Radioactive isotopes have an unstable nucleus that decays or emits excess energy or radiation until the nucleus becomes stable. They can be naturally occurring or artificial isotopes of an element.

Uses of Radioactive Isotopes - Medicine

There are about 50 naturally occurring radioactive isotopes, and the rest are artificial. We probably don't know all of the many uses these radioactive isotopes have, or the benefits they bring in various fields. What are the uses of these radioactive isotopes? Let's find out.

There are many radioactive isotopes that are very beneficial in applications in medicine. For instance, radioactive isotopes are used for radiation therapy and for locating brain tumors.

For instance, if you need to keep track of activities of your organs, radioactive isotopes are also used here. Here are some radioactive isotopes and their applications in medicine.

Some Radioactive Isotopes Used in Medicine

Uses of Radioactive Isotopes - Food Safety

Have you ever experienced food poisoning? It is very unpleasant, so to minimize food-borne illnesses and food poisoning experiences, food needs to be treated. To do this it has to undergo irradiation which commonly uses radioactive isotopes of cobalt-60.

Besides preventing illness, irradiating food can help it stay fresher longer because it gets rid of microorganisms and bacteria that cause early spoilage. The good news is the irradiated food doesn't come into direct contact with the radioactive isotope, so the food won't be radioactive.

Uses of Radioactive Isotopes - Industry

Do you ever notice when you buy paper that the thickness is uniform? Have you also ever wondered how people know where oil wells should be drilled? Different industries like steel, paper, and oil industries, among others, make use of radioactive isotopes as well.

Here are some radioactive isotopes and their industrial application.

Industrial Uses of Some Radioactive Isotopes

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