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Three Types of Radiation: The Properties and Uses of Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Radiation

Updated on January 27, 2015

Properties of Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Radiation: Relative Strength

Gamma radiation releases the most energy, followed by Beta and then Alpha. It takes a few inches of solid lead to block Gamma rays.
Gamma radiation releases the most energy, followed by Beta and then Alpha. It takes a few inches of solid lead to block Gamma rays.

Properties of Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Radiation: Speed and Energy

 
Average Energy
Speed
Relative Ionising ability
Alpha
5MeV
15,000,000m/s
High
Beta
High (varies hugely)
close to speed of light
Medium
Gamma
Very high (again, varies hugely)
300,000,000m/s
Low

What are the Three Types of Radiation?

When atoms decay, they emit three types of radiation, alpha, beta and gamma. The alpha and beta radiation consist of actual matter that shoots off the atom, while gamma rays are electromagnetic waves. All three kinds of radiation are potentially hazardous to living tissue, but some more than others, as will be explained later on.

Properties of Alpha Radiation

The first type of radiation, Alpha, consists of two neutrons and two protons bound together to the nucleus of a Helium atom. Though the least powerful of the three types of radiation, alpha particles are nonetheless the most densely ionizing of the three. That means when alpha rays can cause mutations in any living tissue they come into contact with, potentially causing unusual chemical reactions in the cell and possible cancer.

They are still viewed as the least dangerous form of radiation, as long as it's not ingested or inhaled, because it can be stopped by even a thin sheet of paper or even skin, meaning that it cannot enter the body very easily.

A case of alpha radiation poisoning made international news a few years ago when Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko was believed to have been poisoned with it by the Russian spy service.

Uses of Alpha Radiation

Smoke detector warning label
Smoke detector warning label | Source

Alpha particles are most commonly used in smoke alarms. These alarms contain a tiny amount of decaying Americium between two sheets of metal. The decaying Americium emits alpha radiation. A small electric current is then passed through one of the sheets and into the second one.

When the field of alpha radiation is blocked by smoke, the alarm goes off. This alpha radiation is not harmful because it is very localised and any radiation that might escape would be stopped quickly in the air and would be extremely difficult to get into your body.

Properties of Beta Radiation

Beta radiation consists of an electron and is characterized by its high energy and speed. Beta radiation is more hazardous because, like alpha radiation, it can cause ionisation of living cells. Unlike alpha radiation, though, beta radiation has the capacity to pass through living cells, though it can be stopped by an aluminum sheet. A particle of beta radiation can cause spontaneous mutation and cancer when it comes into contact with DNA.

Uses of Beta Radiation

Beta radiation is mainly used in industrial processes such as paper mills and aluminium foil production. A beta radiation source is placed above the sheets coming out of the machines while a Geiger counter, or radiation reader, is placed underneath. The purpose of this is to test the thickness of the sheets. Because the beta radiation can only partially penetrate aluminium foil, if the readings on the Geiger counter are too low, it means that the aluminium foil is too thick and that the presses are adjusted to make the sheets thinner. Likewise, if the Geiger reading is too high, the presses are adjusted to make the sheets thicker.

Sidenote: The blue glow produced in some nuclear power plant pools is due to high speed beta particles moving faster than that of light traveling through water. This can occur because light travels at roughly 75% its typical speed when in water and beta radiation can, therefore, exceed this speed without breaking the speed of light.

Properties of Gamma Radiation

Gamma rays are high frequency, extremely-short-wavelength electromagnetic waves with no mass and no charge. They are emitted by a decaying nucleus, that expels the gamma rays in an effort to become more stable as an atom.

Gamma rays have the most energy and can penetrate substances up to a few centimetres of lead or a few metres of concrete. Even with such intense barriers, some radiation may still get through because of how small the rays are. Though the least ionising of all the forms of radiation, that doesn't mean Gamma rays aren't dangerous. They are likely to be emitted alongside alpha and beta radiation, though some isotopes emit gamma radiation exclusively.

Uses of Gamma Radiation

Gamma rays are the most useful type of radiation because they can kill off living cells easily, without lingering there. They are therefore often used to fight cancer and to sterilise food, and kinds of medical equipment that would either melt or become compromised by bleaches and other disinfectants.

Gamma rays are also used to detect leaking pipes. In those situations, a gamma ray source is placed into the substance flowing through the pipe. Then, someone with a Geiger-Muller tube above-ground will measure the radiation given off. The leak will be identified wherever the count on the Geiger-Muller tube spikes, indicating a large presence of gamma radiation coming out of the pipes.

Uses of Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Radiation: Radiocarbon Dating

Source

Radiocarbon dating is used to determine the age of once-living tissue, including objects like string, rope, and boats, all of which were made from living tissue.

The radioactive isotope measured in carbon dating is carbon-14, which is produced when cosmic rays act on nitrogen in the upper atmosphere. Only one in every 850,000,000 carbon atoms are carbon-14, but they are easily detected. All living cells take up carbon-14, whether from photosynthesis or eating other living cells. When a living cell dies, it stops taking in carbon-14, because it stops photosynthesising or eating, and then gradually over time the carbon-14 decays and is no longer found in the tissue.

Carbon-14 emits beta particles and gamma rays. The half-life of carbon-14 (the time in which it takes from the radiation emitted from the source to be halved) works out to be 5,730 years. This means that if we find tissue that has 25% of the amount of carbon-14 found in today’s atmosphere, we can determine the object is 11,460 years old because 25% is half and half again, meaning that the object has experienced two half lives.

There are, of course, limitations and inaccuracies to carbon dating. For example we make the assumption that the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere back when the tissue was living, is the same as nowadays.

I hope this article has helped you understand nuclear radiation. If you have any questions, suggestions or issues please leave a comment below (no sign up required) and I will try to answer it either on the comments section or update the article to incorporate it!

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    • profile image

      Nikki 4 years ago

      I was wondering what effect a Neo dynium magnet would have on gamma irradiation/ sterilization process and vise versa what would gamma rays do to a Neo magnet?

    • profile image

      Vaish 4 years ago

      Excellent work done. Was able to understand easily coz of the use of simple but effective vocabulary.

    • profile image

      4 years ago

      pls can you aDD A table of its properties like its speed and etc

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      student 4 years ago

      thanks this has helped my report out heaps.

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      hobo 4 years ago

      lol :D

    • profile image

      hobo :D 4 years ago

      anyone there???

    • profile image

      anjanette 4 years ago

      its so useful to me, so i score it very good

    • profile image

      hee rae han 4 years ago

      its so useful, so I graded it very good

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      hee rae han 4 years ago

      wow! complete research :/d

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      Max 4 years ago

      Alpha particles are made of two neutrons and two protons, not two neutrons and two electrons.

    • zeke2100 profile image

      zeke2100 4 years ago

      Should the word "ionsing" in the Alpha Radiation paragraph be "ionizing?"

      Very informational article.

    • john.jackson profile image
      Author

      john.jackson 4 years ago from London, England

      It can be spelled either way, I use the British spelling but 'ionizing' is equally as acceptable. Thanks for the read, it's always nice to hear feedback.

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      udulee 3 years ago

      thanks.

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      pillai 3 years ago

      ok sir

      very good use for this information

    • profile image

      nishadi 3 years ago

      what is the most useful radiation?..and is beta radiation is useful than the other radiation?

    • profile image

      lyca 3 years ago

      nice info. i may use it on my report! thanks

    • profile image

      jessa 3 years ago

      this information is so useful to me

    • profile image

      harry zenith 3 years ago

      Very helpful..

    • profile image

      sneha 3 years ago

      very useful in differentiating various types of rays

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      Rich 3 years ago

      Hi-

      Great article. Can some sources give off several types of radiation?

    • profile image

      LOL 3 years ago

      nice!

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      kimirobe 3 years ago

      i hope this answers are correct and can also help my report...

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      fjkiosr 3 years ago

      wowww amazing thanks!!

    • profile image

      #yolo 3 years ago

      awesome thanks

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      asma 3 years ago

      i am thankful for this interesting information.

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      ragee little kid 3 years ago

      none of it made any sense and i am in yr 10 physics

    • profile image

      thunder 3 years ago

      thanks for this.

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      sam 3 years ago

      hello

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      tharu 3 years ago

      one of the most wonderul articles on radiation!!!!

      but i hope you will answer the questions !

    • profile image

      Nimesha Randunu 3 years ago

      This informations are very useful to me and I did understand about three radiation. Thank you.

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      Nimesha 3 years ago

      Information is very useful, thank you

    • profile image

      akshu 3 years ago

      It really helps for my upcoming exams thanks a lot

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      Jasleen Kaur 3 years ago

      This was sooooooooo usefulllllllll thnx a lot!!!!!! made my life easier!!!!!!!!

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      Lilly 3 years ago

      This was extremely useful and informative ! Thankyou

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      Maha 3 years ago

      This helped me do my science homework :)

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      Nagisa Jing Young 3 years ago

      This was really helpful '-' I wish you could make pages like this for my whole national A/L science syllabus . Thanx again....

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      becca 3 years ago

      great info

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      Yuriy 3 years ago

      HELLO

      Yes very nice and good photos you might want to include beta + and beta - radiation that would be great and excellent for people who are doing above GCSE level physics.

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      Kerys PHILLPS 3 years ago

      This is crap

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      Kerys Phillips 3 years ago

      I'd prefer a sandwich

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      Me 3 years ago

      :D Me Gusta

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      bonjour 3 years ago

      esto no es muy bueno que odio esta cosa maldita mierda

    • profile image

      i need sleep lmao 3 years ago

      literally what finished my assignment at 4am cheers man

    • profile image

      Sreyas 3 years ago

      Thankyou sir the article was very helpful

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      tia 3 years ago

      Very interesting nd usefull information...it helped me understand lots nd lots of things...thnxxx for your guidance...

    • profile image

      me 3 years ago

      maybe the mass or charge of each of them ?

    • profile image

      Mim 2 years ago

      Very helpful.

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      asakar 2 years ago

      thanks very great effort keen information

    • profile image

      science addict 2 years ago

      wow this helps sooo much and i was just wondering... what other examples are there that use gamma alpha and beta radiation?

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      johnathan 2 years ago

      hi all , this page helped me a lot as i wanted to know some uses of alpha beta and gamma radiation , Thanks

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      apoorva* 2 years ago

      i am very thankful for this informtion

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      fawas 2 years ago

      hmmm helpful

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      Swans in Space 2 years ago

      wow that was very helpful

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      hahahahahahahaha 16 months ago

      I think its gooooooooooooooood.

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      Prerna 10 months ago

      It is quite good if you are seriously interested in science!

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      yash r 9 months ago

      its niceeeeeeeeeeeeee !!!Reallyyyyyyy

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      Shia313 8 months ago

      I wonder what microwaves then do to our health

    • profile image

      Shia 8 months ago

      This is why I do not like to microwave food

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      datta paranjape 4 months ago

      nice article but what about neutrons? by discovering neutron the whole scenario of nuclear physics/chemistry has changed the dimensions of research and applications over the world

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      MeeraAlkaabi 3 months ago

      What is the composition of Beta and Gamma ?

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      Danrichy 2 months ago

      Thanks this has made my presentation more understanding and elaborate

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      Harshit 8 weeks ago

      Thanks.

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      Roote 6 weeks ago

      I like this because it very help student during their study

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      Kavinila 3 weeks ago

      Thank you

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      Hugh Janus 2 days ago

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