Alpha and Beta Damage
Name: Buddy O.
If alpha particles are less penetrating then a
beta....are they more damaging then a beta?..and does that mean the
wavelength for an alpha is shorter then the beta particle?
The main reason that an alpha particle is less penetrating is that it is
much larger than a beta particle. An alpha particle is a "helium nucleus",
two protons and two neutrons joined together as a nucleus. A beta particle
is an electron. Given the same energy, an alpha particle's relatively huge
mass gives it much less momentum than a beta particle of the same energy.
In addition, alpha particles tend to be released with much less kinetic
energy than beta particles. A nucleus that is too big to hold together
sometimes releases an alpha particle to become more stable. There is
nothing dramatic about it. Beta particles work differently. A nucleus with
too many neutrons can change a neutron into a proton through beta decay. A
neutron becomes a proton and a fairly high energy electron (as well as a
Actual wavelength of an alpha or beta particle depends on the energy of the
particle. The more kinetic energy a particle has, the smaller its
wavelength (and larger its frequency). The average alpha particle has less
kinetic energy than does the average beta particle, so alpha particles tend
to have lower frequencies and longer wavelengths.
Dr. Ken Mellendorf
Illinois Central College
Generally speaking, alphas are more damaging than betas because their energy
is dissipated over a smaller volume of the target. Alphas have much higher
masses then betas, by a factor of around 8000.
A particle's wavelength depends on both its energy and its mass. It depends
on the energy because the frequency is proportional to the energy by the
relation E = hv, where E is the energy, h is a constant, and v is the
frequency. It depends on the speed because
L = s/v,
where c is the speed of the particle and L is the wavelength. Now, for
particles with mass traveling at speeds less than about 1/10 the speed of
light, the speed and kinetic energy are related by
E = (ms^2)/2,
where m is the particle's mass.
We need one more piece of information to really get a handle on the relative
wavelengths of alpha and beta particles: their energies. It turns out that
generally beta particles have energies of less than 2 MeV (million electron
volts: 1 MeV is the energy of an electron accelerated through an electric
field of 1 million volts), and alpha particles have energies above 4 MeV.
So, to summarize: alpha particles are more massive than betas, and they have
higher energies. This translates, as you suspect, to shorter wavelengths.
Richard E. Barrans Jr., Ph.D.
PG Research Foundation, Darien, Illinois
Alpha particles are He(4) nucleii, i.e. (He(4)++). Beta particles are
electrons. They both have a wavelength in the quantum mechanical sense that
they can undergo interference like waves. The wavelength of an alpha
particle is much smaller than a beta particle.
The damage that they can cause depends not only on their relative ability to
penetrate a target, but also the nature of the target (animal, vegetable, or
mineral) and the energy of the particle (i.e. its speed).
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Update: June 2012