Alpha particles consist of two protons and two neutrons bound together into a particle identical to a helium nucleus. They are generally produced in the process of alpha decay, but may also be produced in other ways. Alpha particles are named after the first letter in the Greek alphabet, α. The symbol for the alpha particle is α or α2+. Because they are identical to helium nuclei, they are also sometimes written as He2+
indicating a helium ion with a +2 charge (missing its two electrons). If the ion gains electrons from its environment, the alpha particle can be written as a normal (electrically neutral) helium atom 4
Some science authors may use doubly ionized helium nuclei (He2+
) and alpha particles as interchangeable terms. The nomenclature is not well defined, and thus not all high-velocity helium nuclei are considered by all authors to be alpha particles. As with beta and gamma rays/particles, the name used for the particle carries some mild connotations about its production process and energy, but these are not rigorously applied. Thus, alpha particles may be loosely used as a term when referring to stellar helium nuclei reactions (for example the alpha processes), and even when they occur as components of cosmic rays. A higher energy version of alphas than produced in alpha decay is a common product of an uncommon nuclear fission result called ternary fission. However, helium nuclei produced by particle accelerators (cyclotrons, synchrotrons, and the like) are less likely to be referred to as "alpha particles".
Alpha particles, like helium nuclei, have a net spin of zero. Due to the mechanism of their production in standard alpha radioactive decay, alpha particles generally have a kinetic energy of about 5 MeV, and a velocity in the vicinity of 5% the speed of light. (See discussion below for the limits of these figures in alpha decay.) They are a highly ionizing form of particle radiation, and (when resulting from radioactive alpha decay) have low penetration depth. They are able to be stopped by a few centimeters of air, or by the skin. However, so-called long range alpha particles from ternary fission are three times as energetic, and penetrate three times as far. As noted, the helium nuclei that form 10–12% of cosmic rays are also usually of much higher energy than those produced by nuclear decay processes, and are thus capable of being highly penetrating and able to traverse the human body and also many meters of dense solid shielding, depending on their energy. To a lesser extent, this is also true of very high-energy helium nuclei produced by particle accelerators.
When alpha particles emitting isotopes are ingested, they are far more dangerous than their half-life or decay rate would suggest, due to the high relative biological effectiveness of alpha radiation to cause biological damage. Alpha radiation is an average of about 20 times more dangerous, and in experiments with inhaled alpha emitter up to 1000 times more dangerous, than an equivalent activity of beta emitting or gamma emitting radioisotopes.
The energy of the alpha emitted in alpha decay is mildly dependent on the half-life for the emission process, with many orders of magnitude differences in half-life being associated with energy changes of less than 50% (see alpha decay).
The energy of alpha particles emitted varies, with higher energy alpha particles being emitted from larger nuclei, but most alpha particles have energies of between 3 and 7 MeV (mega-electron-volts), corresponding to extremely long and extremely short half-lives of alpha-emitting nuclides, respectively.
This energy is a substantial amount of energy for a single particle, but their high mass means alpha particles have a lower speed (with a typical kinetic energy of 5 MeV; the speed is 15,000 km/s, which is 5% of the speed of light) than any other common type of radiation (β particles, neutrons, etc.) Because of their charge and large mass, alpha particles are easily absorbed by materials, and they can travel only a few centimetres in air. They can be absorbed by tissue paper or the outer layers of human skin (about 40 micrometres, equivalent to a few cells deep).
Due to the short range of absorption and inability to penetrate the outer layers of skin, alpha particles are not, in general, dangerous to life unless the source is ingested or inhaled, in which case they become extremely dangerous. Because of this high mass and strong absorption, if alpha-emitting radionuclides do enter the body (upon being inhaled, ingested, or injected, as with the use of Thorotrast for high-quality X-ray images prior to the 1950s), alpha radiation is the most destructive form of ionizing radiation. It is the most strongly ionizing, and with large enough doses can cause any or all of the symptoms of radiation poisoning. It is estimated that chromosome damage from alpha particles is anywhere from 10 to 1000 times greater than that caused by an equivalent amount of gamma or beta radiation, with the average being set at 20 times. The powerful alpha emitter polonium-210 (a milligram of 210Po emits as many alpha particles per second as 4.215 grams of 226Ra) is suspected of playing a role in lung cancer and bladder cancer related to tobacco smoking. 210Po was used to kill Russian dissident and ex-FSB officer Alexander V. Litvinenko in 2006.
In the years 1899 and 1900, physicists Ernest Rutherford (working in McGill University in Montreal, Canada) and Paul Villard (working in Paris) separated radiation into three types: eventually named alpha, beta, and gamma by Rutherford, based on penetration of objects and deflection by a magnetic field. Alpha rays were defined by Rutherford as those having the lowest penetration of ordinary objects.
Rutherford's work also included measurements of the ratio of an alpha particle's mass to its charge, which led him to the hypothesis that alpha particles were doubly charged helium ions (later shown to be bare helium nuclei). In 1907, Ernest Rutherford and Thomas Royds finally proved that alpha particles were indeed helium ions. To do this they allowed alpha particles to penetrate a very thin glass wall of an evacuated tube, thus capturing a large number of the hypothesized helium ions inside the tube. They then caused an electric spark inside the tube, which provided a shower of electrons that were taken up by the ions to form neutral atoms of a gas. Subsequent study of the spectra of the resulting gas showed that it was helium and that the alpha particles were indeed the hypothesized helium ions.
Because alpha particles occur naturally, but can have energy high enough to participate in a nuclear reaction, study of them led to much early knowledge of nuclear physics. Rutherford used alpha particles emitted by radium bromide to infer that J. J. Thomson's Plum pudding model of the atom was fundamentally flawed. In Rutherford's gold foil experiment conducted by his students Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden, a narrow beam of alpha particles was established, passing through very thin (a few hundred atoms thick) gold foil. The alpha particles were detected by a zinc sulfide screen, which emits a flash of light upon an alpha particle collision. Rutherford hypothesized that, assuming the "plum pudding" model of the atom was correct, the positively charged alpha particles would be only slightly deflected, if at all, by the dispersed positive charge predicted.
It was found that some of the alpha particles were deflected at much larger angles than expected (at a suggestion by Rutherford to check it) and some even bounced almost directly back. Although most of the alpha particles went straight through as expected, Rutherford commented that the few particles that were deflected was akin to shooting a fifteen-inch shell at tissue paper only to have it bounce off, again assuming the "plum pudding" theory was correct. It was determined that the atom's positive charge was concentrated in a small area in its center, making the positive charge dense enough to deflect any positively charged alpha particles that came close to what was later termed the nucleus.
Note: Prior to this discovery, it was not known that alpha particles were themselves atomic nuclei, nor was the existence of protons or neutrons known. After this discovery, J.J. Thomson's "plum pudding" model was abandoned, and Rutherford's experiment led to the Bohr model (named for Niels Bohr) and later the modern wave-mechanical model of the atom.
Rutherford went on to use alpha particles to accidentally produce what he later understood as a directed nuclear transmutation of one element to another, in 1917. Transmutation of elements from one to another had been understood since 1901 as a result of natural radioactive decay, but when Rutherford projected alpha particles from alpha decay into air, he discovered this produced a new type of radiation which proved to be hydrogen nuclei (Rutherford named these protons). Further experimentation showed the protons to be coming from the nitrogen component of air, and the reaction was deduced to be a transmutation of nitrogen into oxygen in the reaction14
N + α → 17
O + p
This was the first-discovered nuclear reaction.
To the pictures on the right: According to the energy-loss curve by Bragg it is recognizable that the alpha particle loses indeed more energy on the end of the trace.
In 2011, members of the international STAR collaboration using the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory detected the antimatter partner of the helium nucleus, also known as the anti-alpha. The experiment used gold ions moving at nearly the speed of light and colliding head on to produce the antiparticle.Some smoke detectors contain a small amount of the alpha emitter americium-241. The alpha particles ionize air between a small gap. A small current is passed through that ionized air. Smoke particles from fire that enter the air gap reduce the current flow, sounding the alarm. The isotope is extremely dangerous if inhaled or ingested, but the danger is minimal if the source is kept sealed. Many municipalities have established programs to collect and dispose of old smoke detectors, to keep them out of the general waste stream.
Alpha decay can provide a safe power source for radioisotope thermoelectric generators used for space probes and artificial heart pacemakers. Alpha decay is much more easily shielded against than other forms of radioactive decay. Plutonium-238, a source of alpha particles, requires only 2.5 mm of lead shielding to protect against unwanted radiation.
Static eliminators typically use polonium-210, an alpha emitter, to ionize air, allowing the "static cling" to more rapidly dissipate.
Researchers are currently trying to use the damaging nature of alpha emitting radionuclides inside the body by directing small amounts towards a tumor. The alphas damage the tumor and stop its growth, while their small penetration depth prevents radiation damage of the surrounding healthy tissue. This type of cancer therapy is called unsealed source radiotherapy.
In computer technology, dynamic random access memory (DRAM) "soft errors" were linked to alpha particles in 1978 in Intel's DRAM chips. The discovery led to strict control of radioactive elements in the packaging of semiconductor materials, and the problem is largely considered to be solved.