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Chemistry LibreTexts

11.7: Ionizing Radiation

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  • Learning Objectives

    • To know the differences between ionizing and nonionizing radiation and their effects on matter.
    • To identify natural and artificial sources of radiation.

    Because nuclear reactions do not typically affect the valence electrons of the atom (although electron capture draws an electron from an orbital of the lowest energy level), they do not directly cause chemical changes. Nonetheless, the particles and the photons emitted during nuclear decay are very energetic, and they can indirectly produce chemical changes in the matter surrounding the nucleus that has decayed. For instance, an \(α\) particle can act as a powerful oxidant.

    Ionizing versus Nonionizing Radiation

    The effects of radiation on matter are determined primarily by the energy of the radiation, which depends on the nuclear decay reaction that produced it. Nonionizing radiation is relatively low in energy; when it collides with an atom in a molecule or an ion, most or all of its energy can be absorbed without causing a structural or a chemical change. Instead, the kinetic energy of the radiation is transferred to the atom or molecule with which it collides, causing it to rotate, vibrate, or move more rapidly. Because this energy can be transferred to adjacent molecules or ions in the form of heat, many radioactive substances are warm to the touch. Highly radioactive elements such as polonium, for example, have been used as heat sources in the US space program. As long as the intensity of the nonionizing radiation is not great enough to cause overheating, it is relatively harmless, and its effects can be neutralized by cooling.

    In contrast, ionizing radiation is higher in energy, and some of its energy can be transferred to one or more atoms with which it collides as it passes through matter. If enough energy is transferred, electrons can be excited to very high energy levels, resulting in the formation of positively charged ions:

    \[\mathrm{atom + ionizing\: radiation \rightarrow ion^+ + \, {e^-}\label{Eq1}}\]

    Molecules that have been ionized in this way are often highly reactive, and they can decompose or undergo other chemical changes that create a cascade of reactive molecules that can damage biological tissues and other materials (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). Because the energy of ionizing radiation is very high, we often report its energy in units such as megaelectronvolts (MeV) per particle:

    \[\text{1 MeV/particle} = \text{96 billion J/mol}.\]

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Radiation Damage. When high-energy particles emitted by radioactive decay interact with matter, they can break bonds or ionize molecules, resulting in changes in physical properties such as ductility or color. The glass electrical insulator on the left has not been exposed to radiation, but the insulator on the right has received intense radiation doses over a long period of time. Radiation damage changed the chemical structure of the glass, causing it to become bright blue.

    The Effects of Ionizing Radiation on Matter

    The effects of ionizing radiation depend on four factors:

    1. The type of radiation, which dictates how far it can penetrate into matter
    2. The energy of the individual particles or photons
    3. The number of particles or photons that strike a given area per unit time
    4. The chemical nature of the substance exposed to the radiation

    Because of its high charge and mass, \(α\) radiation interacts strongly with matter. Consequently, it does not penetrate deeply into an object, and it can be stopped by a piece of paper, clothing, or skin. In contrast, \(γ\) rays, with no charge and essentially no mass, do not interact strongly with matter and penetrate deeply into most objects, including the human body. Several inches of lead or more than 12 inches of special concrete are needed to completely stop \(γ\) rays. Because \(β\) particles are intermediate in mass and charge between \(α\) particles and \(γ\) rays, their interaction with matter is also intermediate. Beta particles readily penetrate paper or skin, but they can be stopped by a piece of wood or a relatively thin sheet of metal.

    Because of their great penetrating ability, \(γ\) rays are by far the most dangerous type of radiation when they come from a source outside the body. Alpha particles, however, are the most damaging if their source is inside the body because internal tissues absorb all of their energy. Thus danger from radiation depends strongly on the type of radiation emitted and the extent of exposure, which allows scientists to safely handle many radioactive materials if they take precautions to avoid, for example, inhaling fine particulate dust that contains alpha emitters. Some properties of ionizing radiation are summarized in Table \(\PageIndex{1}\).

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Some Properties of Ionizing Radiation
    Type Energy Range (MeV) Penetration Distance in Water* Penetration Distance in Air*
    *Distance at which half of the radiation has been absorbed.
    α particles 3–9 < 0.05 mm < 10 cm
    β particles ≤ 3 < 4 mm 1 m
    x-rays <10−2 < 1 cm < 3 m
    γ rays 10−2–101 < 20 cm > 3 m

    There are many different ways to measure radiation exposure, or the dose. The roentgen (R), which measures the amount of energy absorbed by dry air, can be used to describe quantitative exposure. Named after the German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen (1845–1923; Nobel Prize in Physics, 1901), who discovered x-rays. The roentgen is actually defined as the amount of radiation needed to produce an electrical charge of 2.58 × 10−4 C in 1 kg of dry air. Damage to biological tissues, however, is proportional to the amount of energy absorbed by tissues, not air. The most common unit used to measure the effects of radiation on biological tissue is the rad (radiation absorbed dose); the SI equivalent is the gray (Gy). The rad is defined as the amount of radiation that causes 0.01 J of energy to be absorbed by 1 kg of matter, and the gray is defined as the amount of radiation that causes 1 J of energy to be absorbed per kilogram:

    \[\mathrm{1\: rad = 0.010\: J/kg \hspace{25 pt} 1\: Gy = 1\: J/kg \label{Eq2}}\]

    Thus a 70 kg human who receives a dose of 1.0 rad over his or her entire body absorbs 0.010 J/70 kg = 1.4 × 10−4 J, or 0.14 mJ. To put this in perspective, 0.14 mJ is the amount of energy transferred to your skin by a 3.8 × 10−5 g droplet of boiling water. Because the energy of the droplet of water is transferred to a relatively large area of tissue, it is harmless. A radioactive particle, however, transfers its energy to a single molecule, which makes it the atomic equivalent of a bullet fired from a high-powered rifle.

    Because \(α\) particles have a much higher mass and charge than \(β\) particles or \(γ\) rays, the difference in mass between \(α\) and \(β\) particles is analogous to being hit by a bowling ball instead of a table tennis ball traveling at the same speed. Thus the amount of tissue damage caused by 1 rad of \(α\) particles is much greater than the damage caused by 1 rad of \(β\) particles or \(γ\) rays.

    Wilhelm Röntgen

    Born in the Lower Rhine Province of Germany, Röntgen was the only child of a cloth manufacturer and merchant. His family moved to the Netherlands where he showed no particular aptitude in school, but where he was fond of roaming the countryside. Röntgen was expelled from technical school in Utrecht after being unjustly accused of drawing a caricature of one of the teachers. He began studying mechanical engineering in Zurich, which he could enter without having the credentials of a regular student, and received a PhD at the University of Zurich in 1869. In 1876 he became professor of physics.


    Nonionizing radiation is relatively low in energy and can be used as a heat source, whereas ionizing radiation, which is higher in energy, can penetrate biological tissues and is highly reactive. The effects of radiation on matter depend on the energy of the radiation. Nonionizing radiation is relatively low in energy, and the energy is transferred to matter in the form of heat. Ionizing radiation is relatively high in energy, and when it collides with an atom, it can completely remove an electron to form a positively charged ion that can damage biological tissues. Alpha particles do not penetrate very far into matter, whereas \(γ\) rays penetrate more deeply. Common units of radiation exposure, or dose, are the roentgen (R), the amount of energy absorbed by dry air, and the rad (radiation absorbed dose), the amount of radiation that produces 0.01 J of energy in 1 kg of matter. The rem (roentgen equivalent in man) measures the actual amount of tissue damage caused by a given amount of radiation. 

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