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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Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        BOIKANYO OLESITSE 

        11 days ago

        THANK YOU

      • profile image

        geraldine 

        2 months ago

        amazing information

      • profile image

        bola 

        3 months ago

        Quite understandable

      • profile image

        Henry joy 

        3 months ago

        very good and useful information. thank u

      • profile image

        Clara Burnitt 

        4 months ago

        Thank you for putting this article together. It is very concise, detailed and written in an easy to understand way.

        Have a very good day :)

      • profile image

        4 months ago

        Very helpful!!

      • profile image

        A b y 

        4 months ago

        Nice

      • profile image

        Dabbatron 

        5 months ago

        Dab ANdrew

      • profile image

        liiilam 

        5 months ago

        bruh moment

      • profile image

        Richy the bitch head 

        5 months ago

        bruh moment

      • profile image

        khaled omar 

        5 months ago

        thank you it is very good to understand the properties of radiation

      • profile image

        Omonira 

        7 months ago

        Thank you. this is good and it is easily understood

      • profile image

        Tint 

        7 months ago

        Thank for informative in radiation

      • profile image

        Bala 

        9 months ago

        Thank you

      • profile image

        Mohd Azeem 

        9 months ago

        Thanks for

      • profile image

        asia 

        9 months ago

        Thankyou! This was helpful and easy to understand.

      • profile image

        MANIRAGUHA FELICIEN 

        10 months ago

        Two protons and two neutrons

      • profile image

        Sally 

        10 months ago

        I wish i knew this sooner! thanks

      • profile image

        Yeet Master dab Nashion 

        10 months ago

        Very Informative!

      • profile image

        Edet 

        10 months ago

        Thanks But We Would Like A Tabular form Of The Features Of The Types Of Radiation

      • profile image

        Nellah 

        11 months ago

        thanks but would have loved to get more general properties of radiation

      • profile image

        rabira 

        13 months ago

        thank you

      • profile image

        sadia khan khan 

        13 months ago

        intersting information .....thanx

      • profile image

        Ade 

        13 months ago

        Thanks for making it understandable to me

      • profile image

        BJ 

        13 months ago

        thanks

      • profile image

        Yondela 

        14 months ago

        Enjoyed this topic but would have loved to get more uses of alpha,beta,and gamma radiations

      • profile image

        yorak hunt 

        14 months ago

        amazing

      • profile image

        HINDU BACHKOD 

        15 months ago

        #BOBSANDVAGENE

      • profile image

        Prasads 

        15 months ago

        Explanation is simply superb. I liked it.

      • profile image

        merle 

        15 months ago

        i like

      • profile image

        Josephine 

        15 months ago

        This is good

      • profile image

        lolipop 

        16 months ago

        Eexplain The Properties In Points PLEASE

      • profile image

        FRANCIS 

        17 months ago

        Pls can I find this article in pdf form?

      • profile image

        Aisha 

        17 months ago

        Which type of rays out of gamma,beta,alpha are used in carbon dating ??

      • profile image

        Saad 

        17 months ago

        Radioactivity basically means the emition of particles known as alpha,beta and gamma these are the radiations that come out of a nucleus and make the nucleus stable!

      • profile image

        malouda 

        17 months ago

        nice info/knowledge

      • profile image

        Farida Amin 

        18 months ago

        This material is helpful but this is just like introduction. There mist be some extra or unique information about these rays. To this extent I think everybody knows.

      • profile image

        Mast Ram Meena 

        18 months ago

        Very very thanks

      • profile image

        madscientist 

        19 months ago

        it was good but need to add the details about all other uses with proper pics

      • profile image

        muskan 

        20 months ago

        Thank you this helps me alot

      • profile image

        Josephine 

        20 months ago

        what are the procedures for the safe use,storage and handling of ionizing radiation (alpha,beta and gamma)

      • profile image

        EDSON GADISE 

        22 months ago

        THIS WAS VERY HELPFUL

      • profile image

        Hugh Janus 

        2 years ago

        This was very helpful, thanks (=

      • profile image

        Kavinila 

        2 years ago

        Thank you

      • profile image

        Roote 

        2 years ago

        I like this because it very help student during their study

      • profile image

        Harshit 

        2 years ago

        Thanks.

      • profile image

        Danrichy 

        2 years ago

        Thanks this has made my presentation more understanding and elaborate

      • profile image

        MeeraAlkaabi 

        2 years ago

        What is the composition of Beta and Gamma ?

      • profile image

        datta paranjape 

        2 years 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

      • profile image

        Shia 

        2 years ago

        This is why I do not like to microwave food

      • profile image

        Shia313 

        2 years ago

        I wonder what microwaves then do to our health

      • profile image

        yash r 

        3 years ago

        its niceeeeeeeeeeeeee !!!Reallyyyyyyy

      • profile image

        Prerna 

        3 years ago

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

      • profile image

        hahahahahahahaha 

        3 years ago

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        Swans in Space 

        4 years ago

        wow that was very helpful

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        fawas 

        4 years ago

        hmmm helpful

      • profile image

        apoorva* 

        4 years ago

        i am very thankful for this informtion

      • profile image

        johnathan 

        4 years ago

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

      • profile image

        science addict 

        4 years ago

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

      • profile image

        asakar 

        4 years ago

        thanks very great effort keen information

      • profile image

        Mim 

        4 years ago

        Very helpful.

      • profile image

        me 

        5 years ago

        maybe the mass or charge of each of them ?

      • profile image

        tia 

        5 years ago

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

      • profile image

        Sreyas 

        5 years ago

        Thankyou sir the article was very helpful

      • profile image

        i need sleep lmao 

        5 years ago

        literally what finished my assignment at 4am cheers man

      • profile image

        bonjour 

        5 years ago

        esto no es muy bueno que odio esta cosa maldita mierda

      • profile image

        Me 

        5 years ago

        :D Me Gusta

      • profile image

        Kerys Phillips 

        5 years ago

        I'd prefer a sandwich

      • profile image

        Kerys PHILLPS 

        5 years ago

        This is crap

      • profile image

        Yuriy 

        5 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.

      • profile image

        becca 

        5 years ago

        great info

      • profile image

        Nagisa Jing Young 

        5 years ago

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

      • profile image

        Maha 

        5 years ago

        This helped me do my science homework :)

      • profile image

        Lilly 

        5 years ago

        This was extremely useful and informative ! Thankyou

      • profile image

        Jasleen Kaur 

        5 years ago

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

      • profile image

        akshu 

        5 years ago

        It really helps for my upcoming exams thanks a lot

      • profile image

        Nimesha 

        5 years ago

        Information is very useful, thank you

      • profile image

        Nimesha Randunu 

        5 years ago

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

      • profile image

        tharu 

        5 years ago

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

        but i hope you will answer the questions !

      • profile image

        sam 

        5 years ago

        hello

      • profile image

        thunder 

        5 years ago

        thanks for this.

      • profile image

        ragee little kid 

        5 years ago

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

      • profile image

        asma 

        5 years ago

        i am thankful for this interesting information.

      • profile image

        #yolo 

        5 years ago

        awesome thanks

      • profile image

        fjkiosr 

        5 years ago

        wowww amazing thanks!!

      • profile image

        kimirobe 

        5 years ago

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

      • profile image

        LOL 

        5 years ago

        nice!

      • profile image

        Rich 

        5 years ago

        Hi-

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

      • profile image

        sneha 

        5 years ago

        very useful in differentiating various types of rays

      • profile image

        harry zenith 

        5 years ago

        Very helpful..

      • profile image

        jessa 

        5 years ago

        this information is so useful to me

      • profile image

        lyca 

        5 years ago

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

      • profile image

        nishadi 

        5 years ago

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

      • profile image

        pillai 

        6 years ago

        ok sir

        very good use for this information

      • profile image

        udulee 

        6 years ago

        thanks.

      • john.jackson profile imageAUTHOR

        john.jackson 

        6 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.

      • zeke2100 profile image

        zeke2100 

        6 years ago

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

        Very informational article.

      • profile image

        Max 

        6 years ago

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

      • profile image

        hee rae han 

        6 years ago

        wow! complete research :/d

      • profile image

        hee rae han 

        6 years ago

        its so useful, so I graded it very good

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