Primordial nuclide

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Relative abundance of the chemical elements in the Earth's upper continental crust, on a per-atom basis Elemental abundances.svg
Relative abundance of the chemical elements in the Earth's upper continental crust, on a per-atom basis

In geochemistry, geophysics and geonuclear physics, primordial nuclides, also known as primordial isotopes, are nuclides found on Earth that have existed in their current form since before Earth was formed. Primordial nuclides were present in the interstellar medium from which the solar system was formed, and were formed in, or after, the Big Bang, by nucleosynthesis in stars and supernovae followed by mass ejection, by cosmic ray spallation, and potentially from other processes. They are the stable nuclides plus the long-lived fraction of radionuclides surviving in the primordial solar nebula through planet accretion until the present. Only 286 such nuclides are known.



All of the known 252 stable nuclides, plus another 34 nuclides that have half-lives long enough to have survived from the formation of the Earth, occur as primordial nuclides. These 34 primordial radionuclides represent isotopes of 28 separate elements. Cadmium, tellurium, xenon, neodymium, samarium and uranium each have two primordial radioisotopes ( 113
, 116
; 128
, 130
; 124
, 136
; 144
, 150
; 147
, 148
; and 235
, 238

Because the age of the Earth is 4.58×109 years (4.6 billion years), the half-life of the given nuclides must be greater than about 108 years (100 million years) for practical considerations. For example, for a nuclide with half-life 6×107 years (60 million years), this means 77 half-lives have elapsed, meaning that for each mole (6.02×1023 atoms) of that nuclide being present at the formation of Earth, only 4 atoms remain today.

The four shortest-lived primordial nuclides (i.e. nuclides with shortest half-lives) are 232
, 238
, 40
, and 235
. These are the 4 nuclides with half-lives comparable to, or less than, the estimated age of the universe. (In the case of 232Th, it has a half life of more than 14 billion years, slightly longer than the age of the universe.) For a complete list of the 34 known primordial radionuclides, including the next 30 with half-lives much longer than the age of the universe, see the complete list below. For practical purposes, nuclides with half-lives much longer than the age of the universe may be treated as if they were stable. 232Th and 238U have half-lives long enough that their decay is limited over geological time scales; 40K and 235U have shorter half-lives and are hence severely depleted, but are still long-lived enough to persist significantly in nature.

The next longest-living nuclide after the end of the list given in the table is 244
, with a half-life of 8.08×107 years. It has been reported to exist in nature as a primordial nuclide, [1] although later studies could not detect it. [2] Likewise, the second-longest-lived non-primordial 146
has a half-life of 6.8×107 years, about double that of the third-longest-lived non-primordial 92
(3.5×107 years). [3] Taking into account that all these nuclides must exist for at least 4.6×109 years, 244Pu must survive 57 half-lives (and hence be reduced by a factor of 257  1.4×1017), 146Sm must survive 67 (and be reduced by 267  1.5×1020), and 92Nb must survive 130 (and be reduced by 2130  1.4×1039). Considering the likely initial abundances of these nuclides, possibly measurable quantities of 244Pu and 146Sm should persist today, while they should not for 92Nb and all shorter-lived nuclides. Nuclides such as 92Nb that were present in the primordial solar nebula but have long since decayed away completely are termed extinct radionuclides if they have no other means of being regenerated. [4]

Because primordial chemical elements often consist of more than one primordial isotope, there are only 83 distinct primordial chemical elements. Of these, 80 have at least one observationally stable isotope and three additional primordial elements have only radioactive isotopes (bismuth, thorium, and uranium).

Naturally occurring nuclides that are not primordial

Some unstable isotopes which occur naturally (such as 14
, 3
, and 239
) are not primordial, as they must be constantly regenerated. This occurs by cosmic radiation (in the case of cosmogenic nuclides such as 14
and 3
), or (rarely) by such processes as geonuclear transmutation (neutron capture of uranium in the case of 237
and 239
). Other examples of common naturally occurring but non-primordial nuclides are isotopes of radon, polonium, and radium, which are all radiogenic nuclide daughters of uranium decay and are found in uranium ores. A similar radiogenic series is derived from the long-lived radioactive primordial nuclide 232Th. All of such nuclides have shorter half-lives than their parent radioactive primordial nuclides. Some other geogenic nuclides do not occur in the decay chains of 232Th, 235U, or 238U but can still fleetingly occur naturally as products of the spontaneous fission of one of these three long-lived nuclides, such as 126Sn, which makes up about 10−14 of all natural tin. [5]

Primordial elements

There are 252 stable primordial nuclides and 34 radioactive primordial nuclides, but only 80 primordial stable elements (1 through 82, i.e. hydrogen through lead, exclusive of 43 and 61, technetium and promethium respectively) and three radioactive primordial elements (bismuth, thorium, and uranium). Bismuth's half-life is so long that it is often classed with the 80 primordial stable elements instead, since its radioactivity is not a cause for serious concern. The number of elements is fewer than the number of nuclides, because many of the primordial elements are represented by multiple isotopes. See chemical element for more information.

Naturally occurring stable nuclides

As noted, these number about 252. For a list, see the article list of elements by stability of isotopes. For a complete list noting which of the "stable" 252 nuclides may be in some respect unstable, see list of nuclides and stable nuclide. These questions do not impact the question of whether a nuclide is primordial, since all "nearly stable" nuclides, with half-lives longer than the age of the universe, are also primordial.

Radioactive primordial nuclides

Although it is estimated that about 34 primordial nuclides are radioactive (list below), it becomes very difficult to determine the exact total number of radioactive primordials, because the total number of stable nuclides is uncertain. There exist many extremely long-lived nuclides whose half-lives are still unknown. For example, it is predicted theoretically that all isotopes of tungsten, including those indicated by even the most modern empirical methods to be stable, must be radioactive and can decay by alpha emission, but as of 2013 this could only be measured experimentally for 180
. [6] Similarly, all four primordial isotopes of lead are expected to decay to mercury, but the predicted half-lives are so long (some exceeding 10100 years) that this can hardly be observed in the near future. Nevertheless, the number of nuclides with half-lives so long that they cannot be measured with present instruments—and are considered from this viewpoint to be stable nuclides—is limited. Even when a "stable" nuclide is found to be radioactive, it merely moves from the stable to the unstable list of primordial nuclides, and the total number of primordial nuclides remains unchanged.

List of 34 radioactive primordial nuclides and measured half-lives

These 34 primordial nuclides represent radioisotopes of 28 distinct chemical elements (cadmium, neodymium, samarium, tellurium, uranium, and xenon each have two primordial radioisotopes). The radionuclides are listed in order of stability, with the longest half-life beginning the list. These radionuclides in many cases are so nearly stable that they compete for abundance with stable isotopes of their respective elements. For three chemical elements, indium, tellurium, and rhenium, a very long-lived radioactive primordial nuclide is found in greater abundance than a stable nuclide.

The longest-lived radionuclide has a half-life of 2.2×1024 years, which is 160 trillion times the age of the Universe. Only four of these 34 nuclides have half-lives shorter than, or equal to, the age of the universe. Most of the remaining 30 have half-lives much longer. The shortest-lived primordial isotope, 235U, has a half-life of 704 million years, about one sixth of the age of the Earth and the Solar System.

Decay energy
Approx. ratio
half-life to
age of universe
253128Te8.7432612.2×10242 β2.530160 trillion
254124Xe8.7782641.8×1022KK2.8641 trillion
25578Kr9.0223499.2×1021KK2.846670 billion
256136Xe8.7068052.165×10212 β2.462150 billion
25776Ge9.0346561.8×10212 β2.039130 billion
258130Ba8.7425741.2×1021KK2.62090 billion
25982Se9.0175961.1×10202 β2.9958 billion
260116Cd8.8361463.102×10192 β2.8092 billion
26148Ca8.9924522.301×10192 β4.274, .00582 billion
26296Zr8.9613592.0×10192 β3.41 billion
263209Bi8.1586891.9×1019α3.1371 billion
264130Te8.7665788.806×10182 β.868600 million
265150Nd8.5625947.905×10182 β3.367600 million
266100Mo8.9331677.804×10182 β3.035600 million
267151Eu8.5657595.004×1018α1.9644300 million
268180W8.3471271.801×1018α2.509100 million
26950V9.0557591.4×1017β+ or β2.205, 1.03810 million
279138La8.6983201.021×1011K or β1.737, 1.0447.4
283232Th7.9185331.406×1010α or SF4.0831
284238U7.8725514.471×109α or SF or 2 β4.2700.3
28540K8.9097071.25×109β or K or β+1.311, 1.505, 1.5050.09
286235U7.8971987.04×108α or SF4.6790.05

List legends

No. (number)
A running positive integer for reference. These numbers may change slightly in the future since there are 162 nuclides now classified as stable, but which are theoretically predicted to be unstable (see Stable nuclide § Still-unobserved decay), so that future experiments may show that some are in fact unstable. The number starts at 253, to follow the 252 (observationally) stable nuclides.
Nuclide identifiers are given by their mass number A and the symbol for the corresponding chemical element (implies a unique proton number).
Mass of the average nucleon of this nuclide relative to the mass of a neutron (so all nuclides get a positive value) in MeV/c2, formally: mnmnuclide / A.
All times are given in years.
Decay mode
α α decay
β β decay
K electron capture
KK double electron capture
β+ β+ decay
SF spontaneous fission
2 β double β decay
2 β+ double β+ decay
I isomeric transition
p proton emission
n neutron emission
Decay energy
Multiple values for (maximal) decay energy in MeV are mapped to decay modes in their order.

See also

Related Research Articles

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A chemical element is a species of atom having the same number of protons in their atomic nuclei. For example, the atomic number of oxygen is 8, so the element oxygen describes all atoms which have 8 protons.

Radiometric dating, radioactive dating or radioisotope dating is a technique which is used to date materials such as rocks or carbon, in which trace radioactive impurities were selectively incorporated when they were formed. The method compares the abundance of a naturally occurring radioactive isotope within the material to the abundance of its decay products, which form at a known constant rate of decay. The use of radiometric dating was first published in 1907 by Bertram Boltwood and is now the principal source of information about the absolute age of rocks and other geological features, including the age of fossilized life forms or the age of the Earth itself, and can also be used to date a wide range of natural and man-made materials.

A radionuclide is an atom that has excess nuclear energy, making it unstable. This excess energy can be used in one of three ways: emitted from the nucleus as gamma radiation; transferred to one of its electrons to release it as a conversion electron; or used to create and emit a new particle from the nucleus. During those processes, the radionuclide is said to undergo radioactive decay. These emissions are considered ionizing radiation because they are powerful enough to liberate an electron from another atom. The radioactive decay can produce a stable nuclide or will sometimes produce a new unstable radionuclide which may undergo further decay. Radioactive decay is a random process at the level of single atoms: it is impossible to predict when one particular atom will decay. However, for a collection of atoms of a single element the decay rate, and thus the half-life (t1/2) for that collection, can be calculated from their measured decay constants. The range of the half-lives of radioactive atoms has no known limits and spans a time range of over 55 orders of magnitude.

Stable nuclide nucleus of this isotope does not undergo radioactive decay

Stable nuclides are nuclides that are not radioactive and so do not spontaneously undergo radioactive decay. When such nuclides are referred to in relation to specific elements, they are usually termed stable isotopes.

Nuclide atomic species characterized by the specific constitution of its nucleus

A nuclide is an atomic species characterized by the specific constitution of its nucleus, i.e., by its number of protons, Z, its number of neutrons, N, and its nuclear energy state.

Radioactive decay Process by which an unstable atom emits radiation

Radioactive decay is the process by which an unstable atomic nucleus loses energy by radiation. A material containing unstable nuclei is considered radioactive. Three of the most common types of decay are alpha decay, beta decay, and gamma decay, all of which involve emitting one or more particles or photons.

Decay chain series of elements in radioactive decay

In nuclear science, the decay chain refers to a series of radioactive decays of different radioactive decay products as a sequential series of transformations. It is also known as a "radioactive cascade". Most radioisotopes do not decay directly to a stable state, but rather undergo a series of decays until eventually a stable isotope is reached.

Naturally occurring rhenium (75Re) is 37.4% 185Re, which is stable, and 62.6% 187Re, which is unstable but has a very long half-life (4.12×1010 years). Among elements with a known stable isotope, only indium and tellurium similarly occur with a stable isotope in lower abundance than the long-lived radioactive isotope.

Naturally occurring samarium (62Sm) is composed of five stable isotopes, 144Sm, 149Sm, 150Sm, 152Sm and 154Sm, and two extremely long-lived radioisotopes, 147Sm (half life: 1.06×1011 y) and 148Sm (7×1015 y), with 152Sm being the most abundant (26.75% natural abundance). 146Sm is also fairly long-lived (6.8×107 y), but is not long-lived enough to have survived in significant quantities from the formation of the Solar System on Earth, although it remains useful in radiometric dating in the Solar System as an extinct radionuclide.

Indium (49In) consists of two primordial nuclides, with the most common (~ 95.7%) nuclide (115In) being measurably though weakly radioactive. Its spin-forbidden decay has a half life of 4.41×1014 years.

Neptunium (93Np) is usually considered an artificial element, although trace quantities are found in nature, so a standard atomic weight cannot be given. Like all trace or artificial elements, it has no stable isotopes. The first isotope to be synthesized and identified was 239Np in 1940, produced by bombarding 238U with neutrons to produce 239U, which then underwent beta decay to 239Np.

A nucleogenic isotope, or nuclide, is one that is produced by a natural terrestrial nuclear reaction, other than a reaction beginning with cosmic rays. The nuclear reaction that produces nucleogenic nuclides is usually interaction with an alpha particle or the capture of fission or thermal neutrons. Some nucleogenic isotopes are stable and others are radioactive.

An extinct radionuclide is a radionuclide that was formed by nucleosynthesis before the formation of the Solar System, about 4.6 billion years ago, but has since decayed to virtually zero abundance and is no longer detectable as a primordial nuclide. Extinct radionuclides were generated by various processes in the early Solar system, and became part of the composition of meteorites and protoplanets. All widely documented extinct radionuclides have half-lives shorter than 100 million years.

Isotope nuclides having the same atomic number but different mass numbers

Isotopes are variants of a particular chemical element which differ in neutron number, and consequently in nucleon number. All isotopes of a given element have the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons in each atom.

Monoisotopic element one of 26 chemical elements which have only a single stable isotope (nuclide)

A monoisotopic element is an element which has only a single stable isotope (nuclide). There are only 26 elements that have this property. A list is given in a following section.

Radiogenic nuclide

A radiogenic nuclide is a nuclide that is produced by a process of radioactive decay. It may itself be radioactive or stable.

Nuclear transmutation conversion of an atom from one element to another

Nuclear transmutation is the conversion of one chemical element or an isotope into another chemical element. Because any element is defined by its number of protons in its atoms, i.e. in the atomic nucleus, nuclear transmutation occurs in any process where the number of protons or neutrons in the nucleus is changed.

Even and odd atomic nuclei classification of nuclei by proton, neutron and/or nucleon numbers, as many physical properties depend whether these are even or odd

In nuclear physics, properties of a nucleus depend on evenness or oddness of its atomic number Z, neutron number N and, consequently, of their sum, the mass number A. Most importantly, oddness of both Z and N tends to lower the nuclear binding energy, making odd nuclei generally less stable. This effect is not only experimentally observed, but is included in the semi-empirical mass formula and explained by some other nuclear models, such as the nuclear shell model. This difference of nuclear binding energy between neighbouring nuclei, especially of odd-A isobars, has important consequences for beta decay.


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