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College Physics for AP® Courses 2e

31.5 Half-Life and Activity

College Physics for AP® Courses 2e31.5 Half-Life and Activity

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define half-life.
  • Define dating.
  • Calculate age of old objects by radioactive dating.

Unstable nuclei decay. However, some nuclides decay faster than others. For example, radium and polonium, discovered by the Curies, decay faster than uranium. This means they have shorter lifetimes, producing a greater rate of decay. In this section we explore half-life and activity, the quantitative terms for lifetime and rate of decay.


Why use a term like half-life rather than lifetime? The answer can be found by examining Figure 31.19, which shows how the number of radioactive nuclei in a sample decreases with time. The time in which half of the original number of nuclei decay is defined as the half-life, t1/2t1/2. Half of the remaining nuclei decay in the next half-life. Further, half of that amount decays in the following half-life. Therefore, the number of radioactive nuclei decreases from NN to N/2N/2 in one half-life, then to N/4N/4 in the next, and to N/8N/8 in the next, and so on. If NN is a large number, then many half-lives (not just two) pass before all of the nuclei decay. Nuclear decay is an example of a purely statistical process. A more precise definition of half-life is that each nucleus has a 50% chance of living for a time equal to one half-life t1/2t1/2. Thus, if NN is reasonably large, half of the original nuclei decay in a time of one half-life. If an individual nucleus makes it through that time, it still has a 50% chance of surviving through another half-life. Even if it happens to make it through hundreds of half-lives, it still has a 50% chance of surviving through one more. The probability of decay is the same no matter when you start counting. This is like random coin flipping. The chance of heads is 50%, no matter what has happened before.

The figure shows a radioactive decay graph of number of nuclides in thousands versus time in multiples of half-life. The number of radioactive nuclei decreases exponentially and finally approaches zero after about ten half-lives.
Figure 31.19 Radioactive decay reduces the number of radioactive nuclei over time. In one half-life t1/2t1/2, the number decreases to half of its original value. Half of what remains decay in the next half-life, and half of those in the next, and so on. This is an exponential decay, as seen in the graph of the number of nuclei present as a function of time.

There is a tremendous range in the half-lives of various nuclides, from as short as 10231023 s for the most unstable, to more than 10161016 y for the least unstable, or about 46 orders of magnitude. Nuclides with the shortest half-lives are those for which the nuclear forces are least attractive, an indication of the extent to which the nuclear force can depend on the particular combination of neutrons and protons. The concept of half-life is applicable to other subatomic particles, as will be discussed in Particle Physics. It is also applicable to the decay of excited states in atoms and nuclei. The following equation gives the quantitative relationship between the original number of nuclei present at time zero (N0N0) and the number (NN) at a later time tt:


where e=2.71828...e=2.71828... is the base of the natural logarithm, and λλ is the decay constant for the nuclide. The shorter the half-life, the larger is the value of λλ, and the faster the exponential eλteλt decreases with time. The relationship between the decay constant λλ and the half-life t1/2t1/2 is

λ= ln(2) t1/2 0.693t1/2.λ= ln(2) t1/2 0.693t1/2.

To see how the number of nuclei declines to half its original value in one half-life, let t=t1/2t=t1/2 in the exponential in the equation N=N0eλt N=N0eλt. This gives N=N0 eλt =N0e−0.693 =0.500N0N=N0 eλt =N0e−0.693 =0.500N0. For integral numbers of half-lives, you can just divide the original number by 2 over and over again, rather than using the exponential relationship. For example, if ten half-lives have passed, we divide NN by 2 ten times. This reduces it to N/1024N/1024. For an arbitrary time, not just a multiple of the half-life, the exponential relationship must be used.

Radioactive dating is a clever use of naturally occurring radioactivity. Its most famous application is carbon-14 dating. Carbon-14 has a half-life of 5730 years and is produced in a nuclear reaction induced when solar neutrinos strike 14N14N in the atmosphere. Radioactive carbon has the same chemistry as stable carbon, and so it mixes into the ecosphere, where it is consumed and becomes part of every living organism. Carbon-14 has an abundance of 1.3 parts per trillion of normal carbon. Thus, if you know the number of carbon nuclei in an object (perhaps determined by mass and Avogadro’s number), you multiply that number by 1.3×10121.3×1012 to find the number of 14C14C nuclei in the object. When an organism dies, carbon exchange with the environment ceases, and 14C14C is not replenished as it decays. By comparing the abundance of 14C14C in an artifact, such as mummy wrappings, with the normal abundance in living tissue, it is possible to determine the artifact’s age (or time since death). Carbon-14 dating can be used for biological tissues as old as 50 or 60 thousand years, but is most accurate for younger samples, since the abundance of 14C14C nuclei in them is greater. Very old biological materials contain no 14C14C at all. There are instances in which the date of an artifact can be determined by other means, such as historical knowledge or tree-ring counting. These cross-references have confirmed the validity of carbon-14 dating and permitted us to calibrate the technique as well. Carbon-14 dating revolutionized parts of archaeology and is of such importance that it earned the 1960 Nobel Prize in chemistry for its developer, the American chemist Willard Libby (1908–1980).

One of the most famous cases of carbon-14 dating involves the Shroud of Turin, a long piece of fabric purported to be the burial shroud of Jesus (see Figure 31.20). This relic was first displayed in Turin in 1354 and was denounced as a fraud at that time by a French bishop. Its remarkable negative imprint of an apparently crucified body resembles the then-accepted image of Jesus, and so the shroud was never disregarded completely and remained controversial over the centuries. Carbon-14 dating was not performed on the shroud until 1988, when the process had been refined to the point where only a small amount of material needed to be destroyed. Samples were tested at three independent laboratories, each being given four pieces of cloth, with only one unidentified piece from the shroud, to avoid prejudice. All three laboratories found samples of the shroud contain 92% of the 14C14C found in living tissues, allowing the shroud to be dated (see Example 31.4).

The figure shows two images of Jesus. Left image is very faint and hardly visible but the right image shows a much clearer picture.
Figure 31.20 Part of the Shroud of Turin, which shows a remarkable negative imprint likeness of Jesus complete with evidence of crucifixion wounds. The shroud first surfaced in the 14th century and was only recently carbon-14 dated. It has not been determined how the image was placed on the material. (credit: Butko, Wikimedia Commons)

Example 31.4

How Old Is the Shroud of Turin?

Calculate the age of the Shroud of Turin given that the amount of 14C14C found in it is 92% of that in living tissue.


Knowing that 92% of the 14C14C remains means that N/N0=0.92N/N0=0.92. Therefore, the equation N=N0eλtN=N0eλt can be used to find λtλt. We also know that the half-life of 14C14C is 5730 y, and so once λtλt is known, we can use the equation λ=0.693t1/2λ=0.693t1/2 to find λλ and then find tt as requested. Here, we postulate that the decrease in 14C14C is solely due to nuclear decay.


Solving the equation N=N0eλtN=N0eλt for N/N0N/N0 gives




Taking the natural logarithm of both sides of the equation yields


so that


Rearranging to isolate tt gives


Now, the equation λ=0.693t1/2λ=0.693t1/2 can be used to find λλ for 14C14C. Solving for λλ and substituting the known half-life gives

λ=0.693t1/2=0.6935730 y.λ=0.693t1/2=0.6935730 y.

We enter this value into the previous equation to find tt:

t=0.08340.6935730 y=690 y.t=0.08340.6935730 y=690 y.


This dates the material in the shroud to 1988–690 = a.d. 1300. Our calculation is only accurate to two digits, so that the year is rounded to 1300. The values obtained at the three independent laboratories gave a weighted average date of a.d. 1320±601320±60. The uncertainty is typical of carbon-14 dating and is due to the small amount of 14C14C in living tissues, the amount of material available, and experimental uncertainties (reduced by having three independent measurements). It is meaningful that the date of the shroud is consistent with the first record of its existence and inconsistent with the period in which Jesus lived.

There are other forms of radioactive dating. Rocks, for example, can sometimes be dated based on the decay of 238U238U. The decay series for 238U238U ends with 206Pb206Pb, so that the ratio of these nuclides in a rock is an indication of how long it has been since the rock solidified. The original composition of the rock, such as the absence of lead, must be known with some confidence. However, as with carbon-14 dating, the technique can be verified by a consistent body of knowledge. Since 238U238U has a half-life of 4.5×1094.5×109 y, it is useful for dating only very old materials, showing, for example, that the oldest rocks on Earth solidified about 3.5×1093.5×109 years ago.

Activity, the Rate of Decay

What do we mean when we say a source is highly radioactive? Generally, this means the number of decays per unit time is very high. We define activity RR to be the rate of decay expressed in decays per unit time. In equation form, this is


where ΔNΔN is the number of decays that occur in time ΔtΔt. The SI unit for activity is one decay per second and is given the name becquerel (Bq) in honor of the discoverer of radioactivity. That is,

1Bq=1 decay/s.1Bq=1 decay/s.

Activity RR is often expressed in other units, such as decays per minute or decays per year. One of the most common units for activity is the curie (Ci), defined to be the activity of 1 g of 226Ra226Ra, in honor of Marie Curie’s work with radium. The definition of curie is

1 Ci=3.70×1010 Bq, 1 Ci=3.70×1010 Bq,

or 3.70×10103.70×1010 decays per second. A curie is a large unit of activity, while a becquerel is a relatively small unit. 1 MBq=100 microcuries (μCi)1 MBq=100 microcuries (μCi). In countries like Australia and New Zealand that adhere more to SI units, most radioactive sources, such as those used in medical diagnostics or in physics laboratories, are labeled in Bq or megabecquerel (MBq).

Intuitively, you would expect the activity of a source to depend on two things: the amount of the radioactive substance present, and its half-life. The greater the number of radioactive nuclei present in the sample, the more will decay per unit of time. The shorter the half-life, the more decays per unit time, for a given number of nuclei. So activity RR should be proportional to the number of radioactive nuclei, NN, and inversely proportional to their half-life, t1/2t1/2. In fact, your intuition is correct. It can be shown that the activity of a source is


where NN is the number of radioactive nuclei present, having half-life t1/2t1/2. This relationship is useful in a variety of calculations, as the next two examples illustrate.

Example 31.5

How Great Is the 14C14C Activity in Living Tissue?

Calculate the activity due to 14C14C in 1.00 kg of carbon found in a living organism. Express the activity in units of Bq and Ci.


To find the activity RR using the equation R=0.693Nt1/2R=0.693Nt1/2, we must know NN and t1/2t1/2. The half-life of 14C14C can be found in Appendix B, and was stated above as 5730 y. To find NN, we first find the number of 12C12C nuclei in 1.00 kg of carbon using the concept of a mole. As indicated, we then multiply by 1.3×10121.3×1012 (the abundance of 14C14C in a carbon sample from a living organism) to get the number of 14C14C nuclei in a living organism.


One mole of carbon has a mass of 12.0 g, since it is nearly pure 12C12C. (A mole has a mass in grams equal in magnitude to AA found in the periodic table.) Thus the number of carbon nuclei in a kilogram is

N(12C)= 6.02 × 1023 mol–1 12.0 g/mol ×(1000 g) =5.02×1025. N(12C)= 6.02 × 1023 mol–1 12.0 g/mol ×(1000 g) =5.02×1025.

So the number of 14C14C nuclei in 1 kg of carbon is

N(14C)= (5.02×1025 )(1.3×10−12)=6.52×1013.N(14C)= (5.02×1025 )(1.3×10−12)=6.52×1013.

Now the activity RR is found using the equation R=0.693Nt1/2R=0.693Nt1/2.

Entering known values gives

R=0.693(6.52×1013)5730 y=7.89×109y–1,R=0.693(6.52×1013)5730 y=7.89×109y–1,

or 7.89×1097.89×109 decays per year. To convert this to the unit Bq, we simply convert years to seconds. Thus,

R = (7.89 × 10 9 y –1 ) 1.00 y 3. 16× 107 s=250 Bq, R = (7.89 × 10 9 y –1 ) 1.00 y 3. 16× 107 s=250 Bq,

or 250 decays per second. To express RR in curies, we use the definition of a curie,

R=250 Bq3.7×1010 Bq/Ci=6.76×109 Ci.R=250 Bq3.7×1010 Bq/Ci=6.76×109 Ci.




Our own bodies contain kilograms of carbon, and it is intriguing to think there are hundreds of 14C14C decays per second taking place in us. Carbon-14 and other naturally occurring radioactive substances in our bodies contribute to the background radiation we receive. The small number of decays per second found for a kilogram of carbon in this example gives you some idea of how difficult it is to detect 14C14C in a small sample of material. If there are 250 decays per second in a kilogram, then there are 0.25 decays per second in a gram of carbon in living tissue. To observe this, you must be able to distinguish decays from other forms of radiation, in order to reduce background noise. This becomes more difficult with an old tissue sample, since it contains less 14C14C, and for samples more than 50 thousand years old, it is impossible.

Human-made (or artificial) radioactivity has been produced for decades and has many uses. Some of these include medical therapy for cancer, medical imaging and diagnostics, and food preservation by irradiation. Many applications as well as the biological effects of radiation are explored in Medical Applications of Nuclear Physics, but it is clear that radiation is hazardous. A number of tragic examples of this exist, one of the most disastrous being the meltdown and fire at the Chernobyl reactor complex in the Ukraine (see Figure 31.21). Several radioactive isotopes were released in huge quantities, contaminating many thousands of square kilometers and directly affecting hundreds of thousands of people. The most significant releases were of 131I131I, 90Sr90Sr, 137Cs137Cs, 239Pu239Pu, 238U238U, and 235U235U. Estimates are that the total amount of radiation released was about 100 million curies.

Human and Medical Applications

A person holding a hand held radiation detector near the Chernobyl reactor.
Figure 31.21 The Chernobyl reactor. More than 100 people died soon after its meltdown, and there will be thousands of deaths from radiation-induced cancer in the future. While the accident was due to a series of human errors, the cleanup efforts were heroic. Most of the immediate fatalities were firefighters and reactor personnel. (credit: Elena Filatova)

Example 31.6

What Mass of 137Cs137Cs Escaped Chernobyl?

It is estimated that the Chernobyl disaster released 6.0 MCi of 137Cs137Cs into the environment. Calculate the mass of 137Cs137Cs released.


We can calculate the mass released using Avogadro’s number and the concept of a mole if we can first find the number of nuclei NN released. Since the activity RR is given, and the half-life of 137Cs137Cs is found in Appendix B to be 30.2 y, we can use the equation R=0.693Nt1/2R=0.693Nt1/2 to find NN.


Solving the equation R=0.693Nt1/2R=0.693Nt1/2 for NN gives


Entering the given values yields

N=(6.0 MCi)(30.2 y)0.693.N=(6.0 MCi)(30.2 y)0.693.

Converting curies to becquerels and years to seconds, we get

N = ( 6 . 0 × 10 6 Ci ) ( 3 . 7 × 10 10 Bq/Ci ) ( 30.2 y ) ( 3 . 16 × 10 7 s/y ) 0.693 = 3 . 1 × 10 26 . N = ( 6 . 0 × 10 6 Ci ) ( 3 . 7 × 10 10 Bq/Ci ) ( 30.2 y ) ( 3 . 16 × 10 7 s/y ) 0.693 = 3 . 1 × 10 26 .

One mole of a nuclide AXAX has a mass of AA grams, so that one mole of 137Cs137Cs has a mass of 137 g. A mole has 6.02 ×10236.02 ×1023 nuclei. Thus the mass of 137Cs137Cs released was

m = 137 g 6.02 × 10 23 ( 3 . 1 × 10 26 ) = 70 × 10 3 g = 70 kg. m = 137 g 6.02 × 10 23 ( 3 . 1 × 10 26 ) = 70 × 10 3 g = 70 kg.


While 70 kg of material may not be a very large mass compared to the amount of fuel in a power plant, it is extremely radioactive, since it only has a 30-year half-life. Six megacuries (6.0 MCi) is an extraordinary amount of activity but is only a fraction of what is produced in nuclear reactors. Similar amounts of the other isotopes were also released at Chernobyl. Although the chances of such a disaster may have seemed small, the consequences were extremely severe, requiring greater caution than was used. More will be said about safe reactor design in the next chapter, but it should be noted that more recent reactors have a fundamentally safer design.

Activity RR decreases in time, going to half its original value in one half-life, then to one-fourth its original value in the next half-life, and so on. Since R=0.693Nt1/2R=0.693Nt1/2, the activity decreases as the number of radioactive nuclei decreases. The equation for RR as a function of time is found by combining the equations N=N0eλtN=N0eλt and R=0.693Nt1/2R=0.693Nt1/2, yielding


where R0R0 is the activity at t=0t=0. This equation shows exponential decay of radioactive nuclei. For example, if a source originally has a 1.00-mCi activity, it declines to 0.500 mCi in one half-life, to 0.250 mCi in two half-lives, to 0.125 mCi in three half-lives, and so on. For times other than whole half-lives, the equation R=R0eλtR=R0eλt must be used to find RR.

PhET Explorations

Alpha Decay

Watch alpha particles escape from a polonium nucleus, causing radioactive alpha decay. See how random decay times relate to the half life.

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