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Isotopes are various forms of an element that have the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons. Some elements, such as carbon, potassium, and uranium, have multiple naturally-occurring isotopes. Isotopes are defined first by their element and then by the sum of the protons and neutrons present.
Carbon-12 (or 12C) contains six protons, six neutrons, and six electrons; therefore, it has a mass number of 12 amu (six protons and six neutrons).
Carbon-14 (or 14C) contains six protons, eight neutrons, and six electrons; its atomic mass is 14 amu (six protons and eight neutrons).
While the mass of individual isotopes is different, their physical and chemical properties remain mostly unchanged.
Isotopes do differ in their stability. Carbon-12 (12C) is the most abundant of the carbon isotopes, accounting for 98.89% of carbon on Earth. Carbon-14 (14C) is unstable and only occurs in trace amounts. Unstable isotopes most commonly emit alpha particles (He2+) and electrons. Neutrons, protons, and positrons can also be emitted and electrons can be captured to attain a more stable atomic configuration (lower level of potential energy) through a process called radioactive decay. The new atoms created may be in a high energy state and emit gamma rays which lowers the energy but alone does not change the atom into another isotope. These atoms are called radioactive isotopes or radioisotopes.
Carbon is normally present in the atmosphere in the form of gaseous compounds like carbon dioxide and methane. Carbon-14 (14C) is a naturally-occurring radioisotope that is created from atmospheric 14N (nitrogen) by the addition of a neutron and the loss of a proton, which is caused by cosmic rays. This is a continuous process so more 14C is always being created in the atmosphere. Once produced, the 14C often combines with the oxygen in the atmosphere to form carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide produced in this way diffuses in the atmosphere, is dissolved in the ocean, and is incorporated by plants via photosynthesis. Animals eat the plants and, ultimately, the radiocarbon is distributed throughout the biosphere.
In living organisms, the relative amount of 14C in their body is approximately equal to the concentration of 14C in the atmosphere. When an organism dies, it is no longer ingesting 14C, so the ratio between 14C and 12C will decline as 14C gradually decays back to 14N. This slow process, which is called beta decay, releases energy through the emission of electrons from the nucleus or positrons.
After approximately 5,730 years, half of the starting concentration of 14C will have been converted back to 14N. This is referred to as its half-life, or the time it takes for half of the original concentration of an isotope to decay back to its more stable form. Because the half-life of 14C is long, it is used to date formerly-living objects such as old bones or wood. Comparing the ratio of the 14C concentration found in an object to the amount of 14C in the atmosphere, the amount of the isotope that has not yet decayed can be determined. On the basis of this amount, the age of the material can be accurately calculated, as long as the material is believed to be less than 50,000 years old. This technique is called radiocarbon dating, or carbon dating for short.
Other elements have isotopes with different half lives. For example, 40K (potassium-40) has a half-life of 1.25 billion years, and 235U (uranium-235) has a half-life of about 700 million years. Scientists often use these other radioactive elements to date objects that are older than 50,000 years (the limit of carbon dating). Through the use of radiometric dating, scientists can study the age of fossils or other remains of extinct organisms.