The isotope is an atom whose properties give it a strategic place in many fields, such as health, industry and fundamental research. Let’s discover these strange "materials" at the heart of technological innovation...
The matter that surrounds us, water, air, or even living beings, is made up of atoms, particles invisible to the naked eye. Atoms are composed of a nucleus, around which electrons orbit.
Inside the atom's nucleus are particles called neutrons, which are bound to protons. The cumulative number of protons and neutrons (together known as nucleons) in an atomic nucleus is the atomic mass of the atom.
When we talk about an isotope, we distinguish a type of atom that has the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons.
Inside the atomic nucleus, the number of protons defines the chemical properties of the atom. Two atoms with the same number of protons are called isotopes. They belong to the same chemical element because they have the same
number of protons in the nucleus.
However, isotopes, which belong to the same chemical element, are distinguished by different physical properties because of the number of neutrons they have. The neutron is an elementary particle of neutral electric charge, which can be stable or unstable.
Each isotope of the same chemical element thus shares the same atomic number (Z), which corresponds to the number of protons they have.
However, they are distinguished from each other by their atomic mass number (neutrons + protons); the number of neutrons they have is different.
In the notation of carbon 14, we therefore write 14
6 C, C being the chemical symbol of carbon, 14 its atomic mass number (protons + neutrons) and 6 corresponds to its atomic number, i.e. its number of protons.
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Carbon-14 is an isotope used for dating objects and living materials in archeology.
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The baseball team in the animated series The Simpsons is called “The Isotopes”. A nod to their sponsor, the Springfield nuclear power plant.
Unstable isotopes, also called radioactive or radioisotopes, have enabled major advances in sectors of industry, archeology with carbon-14 dating, but also in cancer treatments.
Nuclear energy, as we know it, was made possible by human intervention. Two industrial processes have been implemented: fusion and nuclear fission.
In the case of fusion, it is a matter of combining two nuclei of atoms to form a larger atom and thus produce more energy.
In nuclear fission, the process involves the disintegration or splitting of a nucleus into smaller atomic nuclei. In fission, the Pu-239 isotope of plutonium is used, as well as the U-235 isotope of uranium. When the nuclei of isotopes are split, they generate large quantities of energy.
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Stable isotopes such as zinc, depleted in zinc-64, help reduce corrosion of nuclear reactor cooling equipment, while limiting the production of radioactive waste.
In the development of cancer treatments, the use of isotopes plays a major role, particularly in oncology.
An example of an innovative treatment is the use of a radioactive atom, lead-212. This is associated with biological molecules, such as antibodies. As it disintegrates, the lead-212 isotope emits alpha radiation leading to the elimination of cancer cells and limiting damage to healthy cells.
This is a unique process called Targeted Alpha Therapy, developed in particular by Orano Med, the medical subsidiary of Orano, which launched its first clinical trial in 2012.
Isotopes are also used to preserve works by applying gamma radiation. Its aim is to slow down the deterioration of the work.
The use of silicon-28 promises great advances in the industrialization of quantum chips with thousands or even millions of "qubits". To do this, the researchers need silicon enriched in the isotope 28. Natural silicon is composed of 92% of the 28 isotope. After transformation, this will be increased up to 99.9%.
Stable isotopes serve a large number of sectors of the future such as quantum computing and fundamental experiments to improve the understanding of matter. For example, the isotope 136 of xenon (8.9% in its natural state) makes it possible to carry out research on matter.