Types Of Isotopes With Examples & Their Uses

The meaning of the word isotope means “ in the same place”, so isotopes are atoms of the same chemical element. Therefore, the main characteristic that they present is that they have the same atomic number but different mass numbers.

“Isotopes are variants of an element with the same number of protons but differing numbers of neutrons, resulting in variations in atomic mass. They exhibit similar chemical properties but may have distinct physical properties and behaviors due to their differing atomic masses”.

What is an Isotope?

Isotopes are species of the same chemical element that are located in the same place on the periodic table and have the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons.

This occurs because the atomic mass is calculated by counting neutrons and the atomic number is calculated by the number of protons present in the atom, and since the number of atoms is invariable “it is always the same.”

They have multiple uses today, from the food industry to the world of medicine. Likewise, they are used in agriculture, and pest control and, thanks to the property of some isotopes of emitting radiation, they are used to eliminate bacteria.


Carbon-14, used in radiocarbon dating, is an isotope of carbon with 6 protons and 8 neutrons.

Main characteristics of isotopes:

  1. They have the same atomic number, which means they have the same number of protons.
  2. They are found in the same place on the periodic table and hence their name, since the word comes from the Greek isos “same”, topos “place”.
  3. By having the different mass number. Which indicates that the number of neutrons is different.
  4. Unstable isotopes are used to calculate the age of various organic materials. With this method the age of the earth is calculated, for example. It also applies to other archaeological elements.
  5. They have similar chemical properties such as solubility, but they differ from others. Such is the case of density, since they have a different mass number.

Types of isotopes

Basically there are three types of isotopes, these are:

Natural isotopes: These are those that are found freely in nature. Such is the case of hydrogen, protium or tritium, among many others. They are usually used in the nuclear industry.

Artificial isotopes: These are isotopes produced in chemical laboratories. This is done through a subatomic particle bombardment method. Their main characteristic is that they have a short life, they are usually unstable, as well as radioactive.

Radioactive isotopes: They are used in the treatment of many diseases and for diagnosis. Radioactive isotopes are modified atoms, making them have more protons in their nucleus, making them radioactive.

Some are stable, meaning they have a harmonious combination of protons and neutrons. This property means that they do not represent any type of threat to human beings, unlike unstable ones.

In turn, depending on how they were created, radioactive isotopes are classified into:

  • Long-lived isotopes: Or also called stable, they have a longer half-life than any other.
  • Cosmogenic: They help collect astronomical and geological information.
  • Anthropogenic: They belong to both the reactive and artificial groups.
  • Radiogenic: Belongs to the group of stable radioactive substances.

Uses Of Isotopes And Applications

Isotopes find applications in various fields such as medicine for diagnostic imaging and cancer treatment, as well as in agriculture for tracing nutrient uptake and soil analysis, due to their ability to be tracked and their different properties based on atomic mass.

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