Half-life

Radioactive decay is a random process. A block of radioactive material will contain many trillions of nuclei and not all nuclei are likely to decay at the same time so it is impossible to tell when a particular nucleus will decay.

It is not possible to say which particular nucleus will decay next but given that there are so many of them, it is possible to say that a certain number will decay in a certain time. Scientists cannot tell when a particular nucleus will decay but they can use statistical methods to tell when half the unstable nuclei in a sample will have decayed. This is called the half-life.

Half-life is the time it takes for half of the unstable nuclei in a sample to decay or for the activity of the sample to halve or for the count rate to halve.

The Geiger-Muller tube is a device that detects radiation. It gives an electrical signal each time radiation is detected. These signals can be converted into clicking sounds, giving a count rate in clicks per second or per minute.

The activity of a radioactive substance is measured in Becquerel (Bq). One Becquerel is equal to one nuclear decay per second.

The illustration below shows how a radioactive sample is decaying over time:

Graph with time against activity in becquerels, with a downward sloping curve.

From the start of timing it takes two days for the activity to halve from 80 Bq down to 40 Bq. It takes another two days for the activity to halve again, this time from 40 Bq to 20 Bq.

Note that this second two days does not see the activity drop to zero, only that it halves again. A third two-day period from four days to six days, sees the activity halving again from 20 Bq down to 10 Bq.

This process continues and although the activity might get very small, it does not drop to zero completely.

The half-life of radioactive carbon-14 is 5,730 years. If a sample of a tree (for example) contains 64 grams (g) of radioactive carbon, after 5,730 years it will contain 32 g, after another 5,730 years that will have halved again to 16 g.

Calculating the isotope remaining

It should also be possible to state how much of a sample remains or what the activity or count should become after a given length of time. This could be stated as a fraction, decimal or ratio.

For example the amount of a sample remaining after four half-lives could be expressed as:

  • a fraction - a ½ of a ½ of a ½ of a ½ remains which is ½ x ½ x ½ x ½ = 1/16 of the original sample
  • a decimal - 1/16 = 0.0625 of the original sample

This could then be incorporated into other data. So if the half-life is two days, four half-lives is 8 days. Suppose a sample has a count rate of 3,200 Becquerel (Bq) at the start, then its count rate after 8 days would be 1/16th of 3,200 Bq = 200 Bq.

Example

The half-life of cobalt-60 is 5 years. If there are 100 g of cobalt-60 in a sample, how much will be left after 15 years?

15 years is three half-lives so the fraction remaining will be (½)3 = 1/8 = 12.5 g.

Question

What is the half-life of a sample where the activity drops from 1,200 Bq down to 300 Bq in 10 days?

Half of 1,200 is 600, half of 600 is 300. So it takes two half-lives to drop from 1,200 Bq to 300 Bq, which is 10 days. So one half-life is five days.