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.
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.Learn More
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.Full Answer >
Isotopes of the same element differ in the number of neutrons contained within the nucleus of the element's atoms, which causes them to differ in their atomic weights. Some isotopes are more radioactive and unstable than others.Full Answer >
Radioactive isotopes are used in many ways, including medical purposes, tracing, X-rays and equipment sterilization. If not disposed of properly, radioactive isotopes may cause damage to the environment.Full Answer >
In every instance where an unstable isotope undergoes radioactive decay, one or more atoms with a different number of protons than the decaying atom are created. According to the Purdue University College of Science Chemical Education Division Group, this takes a variety of forms, from alpha decay where a helium nucleus is released, to beta decay where an electron or positron is emitted, or an electron is absorbed.Full Answer >