Most of us may not be aware of a device in our homes that guards our safety and, at the same time, depends on radioactivity to operate properly. This device is a smoke detector.
A typical smoke detector contains an electric circuit that includes two metal plates about 1 cm apart. A battery in the circuit creates a voltage between the plates. Next to the plates is a small disk containing a tiny amount (∼0.0002 g) of the radioactive element americium (Am). The radioactivity of the americium ionizes the air between the plates, causing a tiny current to constantly flow between them. (This constant drain on the battery explains why the batteries in smoke detectors should be replaced on a regular basis, whether the alarm has been triggered or not.)
When particles of smoke from a fire enter the smoke detector, they interfere with the ions between the metal plates, interrupting the tiny flow of current. When the current drops beneath a set value, another circuit triggers a loud alarm, warning of the possible presence of fire.
Although radioactive, the americium in a smoke detector is embedded in plastic and is not harmful unless the plastic package is taken apart, which is unlikely. Although many people experience an unfounded fear of radioactivity, smoke detectors provide an application of radioactivity that saves thousands of lives every year.
Most chemists pay little attention to the nucleus of an atom except to consider the number of protons it contains because that determines an element’s identity. However, in nuclear chemistry, the composition of the nucleus and the changes that occur there are very important.
Applications of nuclear chemistry may be more widespread than you realize. Many people are aware of nuclear power plants and nuclear bombs, but nuclear chemistry also has applications ranging from smoke detectors to medicine, from the sterilization of food to the analysis of ancient artifacts. In this chapter, we will examine some of the basic concepts of nuclear chemistry and some of the nuclear reactions that are important in our everyday lives.