Neutron emission is a type of radioactive decay of atoms containing excess neutrons, in which a neutron is simply ejected from the nucleus. Neutron emission is one of the ways an atom reaches its stability. An atom is unstable, therefore radioactive, when the forces in the nucleus are unbalanced. The instability of the nucleus results from the nuclei having extra neutrons or extra protons. Two examples of isotopes that emit neutrons are beryllium-13 (mean life 2.7×10−21 s) and helium-5 (7×10−22 s). Commonly, it is abbreviated with a lower case n.
As only a neutron is lost in this process, the atom does not gain or lose any protons, and so it does not become an atom of a different element. Instead, the atom will become a new isotope of the original element, such as beryllium-13 becoming beryllium-12 after emitting one of its neutrons.
Nuclear emission in fission
Neutron emission usually happens from nuclei that are in an excited state, such as the excited 17O* produced from the beta decay of 17N. The neutron emission process itself is controlled by the nuclear force and therefore is extremely fast, sometimes referred to as "nearly instantaneous". This process allows unstable atoms to become more stable. The ejection of the neutron may be as a product of the movement of many nucleons, but it is ultimately mediated by the repulsive action of the nuclear force that exists at extremely short-range distances between nucleons. The life time of an ejected neutron inside the nucleus before it is emitted is usually comparable to the flight time of a typical neutron before it leaves the small nuclear "potential well", or about 10−23 seconds.
A synonym for such neutron emission is "prompt neutron" production, of the type that is best known to occur simultaneously with induced nuclear fission. Induced fission happens only when a nucleus is bombarded with neutrons, gamma rays, or other carriers of energy. Many heavy isotopes, most notably californium-252, also emit prompt neutrons among the products of a similar spontaneous radioactive decay process, spontaneous fission.
Spontaneous fission happens when an atom's nucleus splits into two smaller nuclei and generally one or more neutron.
Delayed neutrons in reactor control
Most neutron emission outside prompt neutron production associated with fission (either induced or spontaneous), is from neutron-heavy isotopes produced as fission products. These neutrons are sometimes emitted with a delay, giving them the term delayed neutrons, but the actual delay in their production is a delay waiting for the beta decay of fission products to produce the excited-state nuclear precursors that immediately undergo prompt neutron emission. Thus, the delay in neutron emission is not from the neutron-production process, but rather its precursor beta decay, which is controlled by the weak force, and thus requires a far longer time. The beta decay half lives for the precursors to delayed neutron-emitter radioisotopes, are typically fractions of a second to tens of seconds.
Nevertheless, the delayed neutrons emitted by neutron-rich fission products aid control of nuclear reactors by making reactivity change far more slowly than it would if it were controlled by prompt neutrons alone. About 0.65% of neutrons are released in a nuclear chain reaction in a delayed way due to the mechanism of neutron emission, and it is this fraction of neutrons that allows a nuclear reactor to be controlled on human reaction time-scales, without proceeding to a prompt critical state, and runaway melt down.
- "Why Are Some Atoms Radioactive?" EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2014.
- The LIVEChart of Nuclides - IAEA with filter on delayed neutron emission decay
- Nuclear Structure and Decay Data - IAEA with query on Neutron Separation Energy
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