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Why are isotopes important?

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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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The discovery of isotopes led to a new understanding of atomic structure, explaining why different samples of a given element might behave in different ways. For example, there are three stable isotopes of oxygen, and water molecules containing the lighter isotopes evaporate slightly faster than the heavier versions. Heavier oxygen molecules tend to condense out of water vapor more quickly, as well, so the water that falls from rain clouds tends to become atomically lighter as the storm progresses.

Isotopes can also be unstable, such as the radioactive elements that power nuclear fission. When these atoms decay, the particles and energy they emit can be harnessed in weapons as uncontrolled reactions or nuclear reactors as controlled reactions. Isotopes are also important in forensics because the ratio of isotopes in a given sample of material can identify its origin. If two samples of lead contain the same mix of isotopes, for instance, it is likely that the samples came from the same source.

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Related Questions

  • Q:

    What does the number next to isotopes signify?

    A:

    The number next to isotopes signifies the sum of the number of protons plus the number of neutrons in the nucleus of an atom. For a particular element, the number of protons never changes, but the number of neutrons can vary.

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  • Q:

    What are types of isotopes?

    A:

    The two types of isotopes are the parent and the daughter, sometimes called the progeny isotope. Isotopes, or atoms, are the different forms that an element can take. Isotopes have the same number of protons as the parent element, but they have different numbers of neutrons.

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  • Q:

    What are natural and artificial isotopes?

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    Isotopes are versions of a chemical element that vary based on the number of neutrons in their nuclei. A natural isotope is an atom that occurs in nature, while an artificial isotope only occurs in laboratory conditions. Isotopes of both types may be either stable or radioactive.

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  • Q:

    What are artificial isotopes?

    A:

    Artificial isotopes are laboratory-created forms of elements. An isotope is an element with a non-standard number of neutrons; these extra neutrons add to the atom's mass and can change the element's physical structure, but otherwise do not change the chemical properties of the element.

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