# Types of radioactive decay

Besides alpha, beta, and gamma, are there any other types of radioactive decay? If so, what are they? Is there any type of radioactive decay that is more powerful than gamma?

## 1 Answer

Here's a list of types of radioactive decay. The most notable types of decay that are not among the classic three involve the direct emission of a free proton or a neutron, the emission of atomic clusters other than helium nuclei (alpha particles), the absorption of one of the innermost shell electrons into the nucleus, or spontaneous fission of the unstable nucleus.

Regarding the question about gamma ray energies, it is first important to notice that "gamma ray" is a generic term that refers to any electromagnetic energy (photons) coming from a nucleus or subatomic particle decays, and has no direct reference to the energy of the photon (though in the past it did). For example, a nuclear excited state of thorium-229, $^{229m}\ce{Th}$, decays through the emission of gamma rays with an energy of 7.6 eV, which corresponds to photons in the ultraviolet region of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Also, the answer depends on exactly what you mean by "power". Assuming you're comparing kinetic energies, Wikipedia says gamma rays from nuclear decay rarely have energy above 10 MeV, and another source says electrons from beta decay usually have energies up to 4 MeV. The energies are all of the same order of magnitude, which makes sense because all the particles are coming from the same source (an unstable nucleus). Theoretically gamma rays can have a slightly higher kinetic energy than other decay particles because photons have zero rest mass, therefore all the decay energy is converted into kinetic energy, whilst for electrons 511 keV is "wasted" on creating the rest mass (and even higher "wastes" for heavier particles such as protons/neutrons/alpha particles etc). I think one can also consider that some energy is used up in "climbing out" of the electrical potential and residual strong nuclear potential wells of the nucleus, neither of which applies to gamma ray photons (though positively charged species would in fact gain energy, being electrically accelerated away from the nucleus by repulsion, but this contribution is probably smaller than the nuclear force one). However, different types of nucleus have different allowed decay paths, and depending on complicated details the most energetic beta particles or proton/neutron emissions might have a slightly higher energy than the most energetic nuclear decay gamma ray.

As a final note, it is also possible to create even more energetic photons than any that could be produced via nuclear decay by putting electrons in a sufficiently powerful particle accelerator. Any charged particle under acceleration/deceleration loses some energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation. For ultrarelativistic charged particles, the photons emitted can be of extremely high energy. These are a type of x-ray termed "hard x-rays" (more energetic than so called "soft x-rays").

Edit: Correction regarding energy lost in rest masses of particles from decay. Energy is used up in the creation of electrons, but protons/neutrons/clusters already exist inside the nucleus, and so are not created. These particles could never be produced directly as a single one would have upwards of 930 MeV, far above typical nuclear decay energies.