Gamma radiation is one of the three types of natural radioactivity. Gamma rays are electromagnetic radiation, like X-rays. The other two types of natural radioactivity are alpha and beta radiation, which are in the form of particles. Gamma rays are the most energetic form of electromagnetic radiation, with a very short wavelength of less than one-tenth of a nanometer.
Gamma radiation is the product of radioactive atoms. Depending upon the ratio of neutrons to protons within its nucleus, an isotope of a particular element may be stable or unstable. When the binding energy is not strong enough to hold the nucleus of an atom together, the atom is said to be unstable. Atoms with unstable nuclei are constantly changing as a result of the imbalance of energy within the nucleus. Over time, the nuclei of unstable isotopes spontaneously disintegrate, or transform, in a process known as radioactive decay. Various types of penetrating radiation may be emitted from the nucleus and/or its surrounding electrons. Nuclides which undergo radioactive decay are called radionuclides. Any material which contains measurable amounts of one or more radionuclides is a radioactive material.
Types Radiation Produced by Radioactive Decay
When an atom undergoes radioactive decay, it emits one or more forms of radiation with sufficient energy to ionize the atoms with which it interacts. Ionizing radiation can consist of high speed subatomic particles ejected from the nucleus or electromagnetic radiation (gamma-rays) emitted by either the nucleus or orbital electrons.
Certain radionuclides of high atomic mass (Ra226, U238, Pu239) decay by the emission of alpha particles. These alpha particles are tightly bound units of two neutrons and two protons each (He4 nucleus) and have a positive charge. Emission of an alpha particle from the nucleus results in a decrease of two units of atomic number (Z) and four units of mass number (A). Alpha particles are emitted with discrete energies characteristic of the particular transformation from which they originate. All alpha particles from a particular radionuclide transformation will have identical energies.
A nucleus with an unstable ratio of neutrons to protons may decay through the emission of a high speed electron called a beta particle. This results in a net change of one unit of atomic number (Z). Beta particles have a negative charge and the beta particles emitted by a specific radionuclide will range in energy from near zero up to a maximum value, which is characteristic of the particular transformation.
A nucleus which is in an excited state may emit one or more photons (packets of electromagnetic radiation) of discrete energies. The emission of gamma rays does not alter the number of protons or neutrons in the nucleus but instead has the effect of moving the nucleus from a higher to a lower energy state (unstable to stable). Gamma ray emission frequently follows beta decay, alpha decay, and other nuclear decay processes.