What exactly is an isotope? Isotopes are molecules of the identical element which contains an equal number of protons and neutrons, but also a different number of electrons. Irrespective of having different numbers of electrons, all isotopes of an element have nearly identical physical properties. Just like all other elements, isotope of a particular element can exist in two forms: in a rocky form called beryllium-and-carbon, and in a soft form known as boron.
If an element has one of two different numbers of protons and neutrons – such as boron – it can be found in nature in varying amounts. If one of these isotopes was to split, with one coming into the Earth’s surface and the other falling to the ground, there would be a difference in the amount of the elements remaining, which scientists can use to determine what is an isotope. For instance, if an atom of an element with a beryllium-and-carbon nucleus was to undergo nuclear fusion, it would give off an amount of energy in the form of heat that would yield photons as its output. If one of the protons were to have an extra electron, it would give off an atomic nucleus with an extra electron of its own, which would be different in atomic number than the undisclosed beryllium-and-carbon nucleus.
So, what is an isotope if it is paired with a gas having a different number of protons? When the nucleus of a gas is paired with oxygen or other gases with fewer protons, it becomes deformed, usually to the point that it no longer has the same number of electrons as the paired nucleus. This is what is known as an element of identical mass. The newly formed element has exactly the same atomic number as the parent element, which means that it has one less neutron. Since there are just as many neutrons as protons, the new element is called an isotope. There are nine such elements, with one called the most common isotope, which is the lead isotope.
One of the reasons why scientists need to determine what is an isotope is because it helps them learn more about the properties of gases. For example, carbon dioxide is known to have a half life of only four years, meaning that it takes fourteen years for one molecule of carbon dioxide to become completely eradicated from the Earth’s atmosphere. If it were otherwise, there would be a significant carbon dioxide build up. But, if we find out that all sixteen molecules of carbon dioxide have the same number of protons but a different number of electrons, then it would suggest that this is what is an isotope, since each of these molecules is made up of a different number of electrons.
Another reason why scientists have become interested in what is an isotope is because it can help them determine whether or not some naturally occurring radioactive elements are naturally radioactive. Some of these elements are uranium, radium, and lead. Many of these elements have been used to create weapons around the world, so anyone who works with them needs to be sure that they are not unstable isotopes. Some people are concerned about the use of these weapons, since they do not contain any element that is man-made. Some of these naturally occurring isotopes can escape to the environment and pose a risk to humans, because the amount of them that are present in the air and water is quite large.
A third reason why scientists are interested in what is an isotope involves the search for a replacement for enriched Uranium. This isotope is difficult to detect, because its atoms are too small to be detected with x-rays. Instead, scientists have been trying to come up with ways to create new nuclear fuel which is much smaller than uranium, but will still produce a similar result when put in a nuclear weapon. If they could somehow achieve this, it would be easier to produce fuel for the B plutonium fuelled President’s atomic bomb. So far, though, this effort has not been successful. Part of the problem has been that it took too long for the design process to complete, and therefore the new isotopes could be much too unstable for use as fuel.
Some of what is an isotope that has been created in the lab has been put into space. One such isotope is Nano Lipobelle HEQ10, which was used by NASA as a research tool. This was because it was thought that it might have the same number of neutons as natural sources, but a very different number of electrons. It is still in space, and NASA is interested in trying to figure out what it is. This has also involved experiments with the European Space Agency, and they are trying to create an entirely new sort of fuel that will use up more of the solar system’s energy to create one tiny gram of fuel each day.
When you get a question like “what is an isotope” from a student, you can be sure that you will get some interesting answers. The real problem, though, is trying to figure out just what isotopes are important to us, and whether or not there is enough of them around to matter. The other big issue that comes up with this sort of question is the difficulty of trying to isolate the right kind of isotopes for the study. It will take some time before we can actually determine what is an isotope, and what makes different types of isotopes important. Hopefully, though, as we learn more about this subject, the difficulties will lessen.