Isotopes for society

Figure 1. Nuclei of carbon's three most common isotopes. [1]

The nucleus of an atom contains protons and neutrons. The type of element is determined by the number of protons. When two different atoms have the same number of protons, but a different number of neutrons, they are different isotopes. These isotopes are chemically very similar (often indistinguishable). This allows people to use these different isotopes to perform essential tasks for society every single day.

Some common examples of using different radioactive and stable isotopes in modern society include:

  • Radioactive dating: where the half life of radioactive substances can indicate how old a sample may be, by comparing how much isotope remains compared to an initial amount.
  • Paleoclimatology: stable oxygen isotopes are used to calculate ancient temperatures by comparing the amount of stable oxygen-18 to the amount of oxygen-16.
  • Smoke detectors: use americium-241 to ionize air molecules. Smoke particles interrupt this and trip the alarm.
  • Nuclear medicine: a wide variety of different radioactive isotopes are used for both diagnostic imaging procedures and medical treatment.
  • Isotope based emissions tracking: our vehicles emit NO2 when we combust gasoline. This is absorbed by nearby plants and can be used to examine the effects of emissions on our ecosystems.

The video below was made by part of the Energy Education team and discusses how isotopes are used for the betterment of society:

For Further Reading


  1. Created internally by a member of the Energy Education team