19.9: Nuclear Transmutation
Nuclear transmutation is the conversion of one nuclide into another. It can occur by the radioactive decay of a nucleus, or the reaction of a nucleus with another particle. The first manmade nucleus was produced in Ernest Rutherford’s laboratory in 1919 by a transmutation reaction, the bombardment of one type of nuclei with other nuclei or with neutrons. Rutherford bombarded nitrogen-14 atoms with high-speed α particles from a natural radioactive isotope of radium and observed protons being ejected from the reaction. The product nucleus was identified as oxygen-17 in 1925 by Patrick Blackett.
To reach the kinetic energies necessary to produce transmutation reactions, devices called particle accelerators are used. These devices use magnetic and electric fields to increase the speeds of nuclear particles. In all accelerators, the particles move in a vacuum to avoid collisions with gas molecules. When neutrons are required for transmutation reactions, they are usually obtained from radioactive decay reactions or from various nuclear reactions occurring in nuclear reactors.
Many artificial elements have been synthesized and isolated, including several on a large scale via transmutation reactions. The elements beyond element 92 (uranium) are called transuranium elements. These elements were all discovered via transmutation reactions, although elements 93 and 94, neptunium and plutonium, were subsequently found in nature as uranium decay products.
Neptunium-239 was created by bombarding uranium-238 with neutrons. The reaction creates unstable uranium-239, with a half-life of 23.5 minutes, which then decays into neptunium-239. Neptunium-239 is also radioactive, with a half-life of 2.36 days, and it decays into plutonium-239.
Plutonium is now mostly formed in nuclear reactors as a byproduct during the decay of uranium. Some of the neutrons that are released during U-235 decay combine with U-238 nuclei to form uranium-239; this undergoes β− decay to form neptunium-239, which in turn undergoes β− decay to form plutonium-239.
Nuclear medicine has developed from the ability to convert atoms of one type into other types of atoms. Radioactive isotopes of several dozen elements are currently used for medical applications. The radiation produced by their decay is used to image or treat various organs or portions of the body, among other uses.
This text is adapted from Openstax, Chemistry 2e, Section 21.4: Transmutation and Nuclear Energy.