Q:

How do isotopes differ from one another?

A:

Quick Answer

Isotopes differ from one another in the number of neutrons they possess. Because of their differing number of neutrons, isotopes also differ in their mass numbers, the total number of protons and neutrons.

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How do isotopes differ from one another?
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Full Answer

Neutrons have no charge, but they do contribute mass to an atom, about the same mass a proton contributes. This difference in the number of neutrons imparts different physical properties to the isotopes. Many of the elements found in nature comprise a mixture of different isotopes.

The most stable isotopes of elements are those with roughly equal amounts of protons and neutrons. If the number of neutrons is too low or too high, the isotope becomes unstable. These unstable isotopes eventually decay into lighter elements. Any isotopes of elements heavier than the element bismuth are unstable and radioactive.

A special isotope of carbon called carbon-14 has a special use in science. All life forms contain carbon. Carbon-14 decays at a predictable rate, so scientists can measure how old dead organisms are based on the percentage of carbon-14 left in their bodies. Isotopes are used in the medical field, pest control, agriculture and smoke detectors, states the Chemistry Department at Duke University.

Radioactive isotopes are called nuclides. Some nuclides present when the solar system formed almost 5 billion years ago still exist, as stated by the University of Arizona; these nuclides include potassium-40, rubidium-87 and uranium-238.

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Related Questions

  • Q:

    Why are isotopes important?

    A:

    According to the National Science Foundation, isotopes are important both to help scientists understand the makeup of atoms in a theoretical sense as well as due to the unique characteristics isotopes of certain elements may have. Isotopes can be unstable and provide opportunities for fission, or they may decay into entirely new isotopes or elements. The specific isotopes present in molecules can serve as atomic-level fingerprints, as well.

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  • Q:

    How do you find the number of neutrons in an atom?

    A:

    To find the number of neutrons in an atom, subtract the number of protons in the atom from the atom's mass. These numbers are found on the periodic table of elements.

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  • Q:

    How many neutrons are in iron?

    A:

    The number of neutrons in an atom of iron is variable, with the most common number being 30. While the number of protons is diagnostic of an atom and does not change without changing the element itself, the number of neutrons varies by isotope.

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  • Q:

    What do all isotopes of the same element have in common?

    A:

    All isotopes of the same element share a common number of protons and electrons, though they vary in their relative numbers of neutrons. All isotopes of a given element are chemically identical, and they form bonds with other elements in the same way regardless of their neutron count or intrinsic stability.

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