Using an Authentic Radioisotope to Teach Half-Life: Students Use a Radiation Monitor, Computer, and Radioisotope Generator in This Real-Time Lab Activity

By Liddicoat, Scott; Sebranek, John | The Science Teacher, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Using an Authentic Radioisotope to Teach Half-Life: Students Use a Radiation Monitor, Computer, and Radioisotope Generator in This Real-Time Lab Activity


Liddicoat, Scott, Sebranek, John, The Science Teacher


New technology and equipment needed to perform lab work has made it easier to teach nuclear science in the three levels of chemistry classes at our high school. Improved technology has, for example, replaced tossing pennies as a model for teaching half-life. We perform several lab activities with radiation monitors, but our half-life lab--using an isogenerator to produce an actual radioisotope--works well at every level of our chemistry program. This safe real-time lab activity is relatively easy to perform and enables students to determine the half-life of a genuine radioisotope.

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Teaching nuclear chemistry

Traditionally nuclear chemistry appears in the last few chapters of chemistry textbooks and is not normally considered a mainstream topic. In addition, some science teachers lack the training or equipment to teach nuclear chemistry. Yet nuclear chemistry is a very important topic that should be taught in all chemistry classrooms.

Standards relating to nuclear chemistry are found in the National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996, p. 62), most state science standards, and in our school district curriculum (Green Bay Area Public School District 2005). Learning about nuclear chemistry concepts and investigating radiation in the laboratory helps students overcome their sometimes irrational fear of radiation. This lab helps students develop the thinking necessary to consider societal issues, such as the irradiation of food, the true relative risk of an x-ray, or the future of nuclear power. It may also open up productive vocational choices to them--millions of jobs in today's economy either use or depend on radiochemistry (NMC 2002).

The concept of half-life

Different radioactive isotopes decay and emit radiation at different rates. Scientists have determined a convenient way to measure and report how fast various radioactive isotopes (radioisotopes) decay. The rate of decay of a radioisotope is measured by its half-life. One half-life is the time it takes for one-half of the atoms of a radioactive isotope to decay to its product (Figure 1).

The half-life of a radioisotope plays a role in almost every application of nuclear chemistry. Radioisotopes are used in medical research, diagnosis, and treatment; nuclear power; consumer product research, analysis, and production; the preservation of fresh food; age estimates of ancient organisms and artifacts; power for deep-space probes; sterilization of medical instruments; and much more.

For example, technetium (Tc) is widely used in medical applications. With a half-life of six hours, technetium is used by many hospitals as a diagnostic tool. Technetium isotopes can be tagged to a substance so that when they are ingested orally or injected into the body, the isotopes will travel to the region of the body that doctors want to study. For instance, to study blood flow through a patient's liver, a doctor might mix the technetium with a colloid because one of the functions of the liver is to remove large macromolecules such as colloids from the blood. A nuclear scanner interfaced to a computer generates clear images of the blood flow inside the body, in this case the liver.

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This noninvasive approach to medical diagnosis has revolutionized the medical industry and eliminated the need for risky exploratory surgery. Most nuclear scanners detect best during the first half-life period of the isotope. Doctors use these images to make accurate diagnoses and treatment plans (Griswold 2004). The six-hour half-life of technetium is short enough to keep the radioactive risk to the patient to a minimum, but long enough to scan for a good image within the body.

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Determining half-life of Barium-137m in the lab

Determining half-life experimentally is hard to do in an educational setting. …

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