So, I am having trouble understanding beta decay. Particularly the number of electrons.

For example; Carbon-14 decaying into Nitrogen-14.

Carbon-14 has 12 neutrons, 6 protons and 6 electrons. When it decays 1 neutron is converted into: 1 proton, 1 electron and 1 anti-neutrino.

So after the neutron breaks down, and before emission, there should now be: 11 neutrons, 7 protons, 7 electrons and 1 anti-neutrino.

But now 1 electron is emitted from the atom (as a beta ray), alongside the anti-neutrino. Which means the numbers should now be: 11 neutrons, 7 protons and...6 electrons.

Since 1 electron is created in the process and 1 is emitted out of the atom, then surely the number of electrons shouldn't change from the original 6 of carbon-14. But Nitrogen-14 has 7 electrons?? Can someone explain?


  • 3
    $\begingroup$ The world is full of electrons. Go steal one from something else, like any other nitrogen anion. $\endgroup$
    – Zhe
    Aug 8 '18 at 13:55
  • $\begingroup$ Surely you must have heard of such thing as ions. What are they? Guess what? To put it bluntly, they are atoms with a wrong number of electrons. $\endgroup$ Aug 8 '18 at 14:00
  • $\begingroup$ Beta decay refers to nuclei. It does not take into account shell electrons. $\endgroup$
    – aventurin
    Aug 8 '18 at 19:11

The two commenters have pretty much answered your question: after beta emission, which is a sufficiently energetic process to tear apart a molecule, the resulting fragments/ions would likely undergo a series of additional reactions with any nearby molecules to finally produce stable species. The emitted electron also would be captured by nearby molecules, leading to a cascade of reactions, also eventually producing stable species. In any case you do indeed end up with a nitrogen atom and an extra electron.

Example: if decay occurred in a bottle of liquid methane, you would get ammonium cation (isoelectronic with methane) and an extra electron loosely attached to methane - a methane radical anion. These could recombine to give neutral ammonia and a hydrogen atom, and then further reactions are possible.

I would also point out that carbon 14 has 6 protons and 8 (not 12) neutrons, but in any case your question remains valid.