Although the term "radiation" is common in public discourse, few people understand exactly what radiation is and what causes it. Even fewer realize that radiation can occur in dramatically different forms and that each of these forms involves different types of subatomic particles.
What Is Radiation?
In a nutshell, radiation is subatomic particle moving at a much higher speed than normal. In most cases, this particle takes the form of an electron, neutron or proton. However, radiation can also be composed of photons – particles that carry energy in the form of light.
Plutonium, uranium and other heavy elements have large collections of protons and neutrons in their nuclei. Over time, these nuclei "decay" or split apart, which can cause some of these particles to rocket away at high speed (a large amount of energy is also released at the same time). Sometimes these clumps occur as a cluster of two protons and two neutrons – essentially the nucleus of a helium atom. This process is called alpha radiation or alpha decay.
The nuclei of some atoms simply contain too many protons or neutrons. This causes the atoms to settle into a more stable configuration by changing the charge of one of the protons or neutrons. Protons lose their positive charge and become neutrons; neutrons gain a positive charge and become protons. This process also leads to the ejection of an electron (or an anti-electron in cases involving a proton that changes into a neutron) at high speed. Beta radiation refers to these high-speed electrons and anti-electrons.
Neutron radiation is the simplest form of radiation, and it simply refers to the ejection of a neutron from an atom's nucleus. Neutron radiation is typically a byproduct of nuclear fission, such as occurs in a nuclear power plant. In a nuclear chain reaction, a single neutron slams into another nucleus, thereby releasing a lot of energy and ejecting more neutrons. These new neutrons slam into other nuclei, causing more neutron radiation, and so on.
Whereas alpha, beta and neutron radiation involve massive particles that interact with most other forms of matter, light radiation takes the form of photons. This allows light radiation to pass through most substances easily. X-rays, for example, pass through your skin unimpeded. The most damaging light radiation, however, is gamma ray radiation, which travels at even higher frequencies than X-rays do. Gamma rays have a number of sources, including nuclear fission, fusion and alpha decay.
Unlike other types of radiation, for which a small amount of water can provide adequate nuclear shielding, gamma radiation passes through water easily. Accordingly, the only way to protect people from gamma radiation is with very dense substances, such as lead.
To learn more about radiation, it can help helpful to talk to a company like Nuclear Lead Co., Inc.that offers nuclear shielding devices and more.