Radioactive Substances in a “Nuclear” Light

Maybe it’s time we start looking a radioactive substances in a new, clearer, and more positive light.  It may sound contradictory because we typically associate the word radioactive with negative concepts like nuclear warfare and cancer; but according to Isla (grade 10) radioactive substances aren’t just used for negative purposes.  In a very well researched paper created during Mr. Haensel’s Science 10 class, Isla uncovered some of the less commonly known uses of radioactive substances. Check out Isla’s report:

I chose to research the other uses of radioactive substances and/or isotopes.  Prior to this research assignment, I didn’t know much about radioactive substances or isotopes and their uses.  The only things I knew about radioactive substances and isotopes were negative, including how some radioactive substances (such as uranium and polonium) are used in nuclear weapons (such as bombs), and how being exposed to radioactive substances can cause cancer.  I was intrigued to learn more about radioactive substances and isotopes and their uses and to see if what I learned would change my perspective of radioactive substances.

Other Uses:

Smoke Detectors – Tiny amounts of Americum-241 can be found in smoke detectors.  In the alarm chamber of smoke detectors, emitted alpha particles flow between the charged plates.  This causes the particles in the air to split into positive and negative ions, which is also known as ionization.  A current (of electricity) is then able to flow, because these ions are attracted to the opposite charged metal plates…

Radioactive Tracers – A radioisotope can be switched with an isotope of the same element in a chemical reaction, because chemically, they are both similar.  A GM counter (Greiger-Muller counter) can then easily detect and track the radioisotope.  This process can benefit us medically, industrially, and agriculturally.  One way tracers help us medically, is for patients with inadequate thyroids.  Another example is when compounds are tagged with radioisotopes of iron (Fe-ss and Fe-sa) and they can observe and study the absorption of iron in the body.  Industrially, if there is a leak or a faulty pipe, a small amount of radioisotope can be injected into the pipe, and then use a GM counter above ground to locate the defective part…

Food Irradiation – By exposing food to gamma rays emitted from a radioisotope like cobalt-60, many disease causing microorganisms and microorganisms that cause food to go bad, can be destroyed.  However, the food is never at risk of becoming radioactive or dangerous because it never comes into contact with the radioisotope and the gamma rays aren’t strong enough to change the texture, flavor, or quality either.  Irradiation is mostly used on spices, herbs, and dehydrated vegetables and is FDA approved.

Sterilizing – In a similar method as food irradiation, surgical equipment can be sterilized, which is more effective than boiling (which would damaged equipment like plastic syringes).

Thickness Control – In paper mills, it is possible to measure the amount of beta radiation that goes through the paper to a GM counter.  If too much is going through, the paper is too thin and vice versa.

Although negatively perceived as dangerous and harmful, if handled carefully and correctly, radioactive substances and isotopes can save lives, or at the least benefit them.  Smoke detectors save lives, and without the radioisotope Americum-241, they wouldn’t be as effective or efficient.  Tracers not only make it easier to locate leaks in pipes, but the process can also be used to satisfy ones curiosity of learning about different plant and animal functions in addition to assisting doctors in understanding their patients.  Radioactive substances and isotopes also make food and equipment safer without damaging them.  These are just a few of the creative and beneficial uses of radioactive substances and isotopes.

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