What is an isotope?

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An isotope represents the different version of atoms contained in a single element found in the periodic table. It comes from the Greek word “same place.” Each element can have identical number of protons but different number of neutrons. Hence, the isotopes contained in the same element can bear the same atomic number but vary in their mass number.

For example, the most common hydrogen isotope normally does not have neutrons. However, another hydrogen isotope called deuterium has one neutron. Tritium, a third kind of hydrogen isotope, has two neutrons. The variation in the element depends on the number of neutrons each isotope has. The more neutrons it has, the heavier it becomes. Heavy isotopes move slowly during a chemical reaction compared to their lighter counterpart, which can react faster to different stimuli.

A single element can have as many isotopes as it can hold. However, only an element with a perfect combination of neutrons and protons has stable nuclei. Isotopes with very few neutrons have shorter lifespan compared to isotopes with the preferred number of neutrons and protons.

There are two types of isotopes: radioactive isotopes and stable isotopes. Radioactive isotopes are identical isotopes of the same elements. They can be used to trace different radioactive processes such as finding the age of the earth, understanding the biological process of living organisms, and determining how recently storms and volcanic eruptions have occurred. Radioactive isotopes do not last long as their nuclei change from time to time. When radioactive isotopes decay, they produce radiation through electromagnetic waves.

Stable isotopes are found in non-radioactive elements such as Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, and Hydrogen. They are commonly used in geochemistry research as well as ecological and biological studies. Stable isotopes are also used to trace the history of atmospheric temperatures, determine climate changes, and predict weather conditions.

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