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Alpha Particles



Alpha decay is a radioactive process in which a particle with two neutrons and two protons is ejected from the nucleus of a radioactive atom. The particle is identical to the nucleus of a helium atom.

Alpha decay only occurs in very heavy elements such as uranium, thorium and radium. The nuclei of these atoms are very “neutron rich” (i.e. have a lot more neutrons in their nucleus than they do protons) which makes emission of the alpha particle possible.

After an atom ejects an alpha particle, a new parent atom is formed which has two less neutrons and two less protons. Thus, when uranium-238 (which has a Z of 92) decays by alpha emission, thorium-234 is created (which has a Z of 90).

Because alpha particles contain two protons, they have a positive charge of two. Further, alpha particles are very heavy and very energetic compared to other common types of radiation. These characteristics allow alpha particles to interact readily with materials they encounter, including air, causing many ionizations in a very short distance. Typical alpha particles will travel no more than a few centimeters in air and are stopped by a sheet of paper.