In nuclear physics, beta decay is a type of radioactive decay in which a beta particle (an electron or a positron) is emitted from an atom. Beta decay is a process which allows the atom to obtain the optimal ratio of protons and neutrons. There are two types of beta decay: beta minus and beta plus. In the case of beta decay that produces an electron emission, it is referred to as beta minus (β−), while in the case of a positron emission as beta plus (β+). In electron emission, an electron antineutrino is also emitted, while positron emission is accompanied by an electron neutrino. Beta decay is mediated by the weak force.
Emitted beta particles have a continuous kinetic energy spectrum, ranging from 0 to the maximal available energy (Q), which depends on the parent and daughter nuclear states that participate in the decay. The continuous energy spectra of beta particle occurs because Q is shared between beta particle and a neutrino. A typical Q is around 1 MeV, but it can range from a few keV to a few tens of MeV. Since the rest mass energy of the electron is 511 keV, the most energetic beta particles are ultrarelativistic, with speeds very close to the speed of light.
Sometimes electron capture decay is included as a type of beta decay (and is referred to as "inverse beta decay"), because the basic process, mediated by the weak force is the same. However, no beta particle is emitted, but only an electron neutrino. Instead of beta-plus emission, an inner atomic electron is captured by a proton in the nucleus. This type of decay is therefore analogous to positron emission (and also happens, as an alternative decay route, in all positron-emitters). However, the route of electron capture is the only type of decay that is allowed in proton-rich nuclides that do not have sufficient energy to emit a positron (and neutrino). These may still reach a lower energy state, by the equivalent process of electron-capture and neutrino-emission.
Famous quotes containing the word decay:
“She is a prude in her own defence ... under the specious mask of propriety, she conceals the decay of her worn-out charms.”
—Molière [Jean Baptiste Poquelin] (16221673)