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What is the difference between alpha and gamma radiation?

Radioactivity is an act of emitting radiation spontaneously. It is an unstable atomic nucleus to achieve a stable configuration by giving up some of its energy. During radioactivity, three primary types of radiation are emitted by radioactive particles including alpha, beta, and gamma.   

The three major radiation types emitted by radioactive particles include 

  • Alpha 
  • Beta 
  • Gama 

These radiations are released from the atom’s nucleus and are emitted by the atom because of an unstable atom trying to gain stability. 

And even their behaviors differ from one another. So, let us take a closer look at each type. 

Alpha Particles 

Alpha particles are the largest particles with the least penetrative power. It carries a positive charge and comprises two protons and two neutrons bound together. An alpha particle later got recognized as helium 4 nucleus. 

These particles have the greatest mass among the other types of radioactive emissions. An alpha particle’s mass is around 8000 times more than the beta particle’s mass. This large size of an alpha particle reduces its penetrative power. 

Properties of alpha particles 

  • Alpha particles are heavy, positive, and slow in movement.
  • The alpha particle’s travel speed is five to seven percent of the speed of light.
  • In cancer treatment, radiotherapy uses alpha particles to kill cancer cells.

Beta Particles 

Beta particles are high-energy positrons or electrons carrying a negative charge. These are considerably smaller in size and have higher penetrative power. 

Properties of Beta particles 

  • Beta particles are used as a trace for medical imaging 
  • Beta particles carry a positive charge namely a positron or a negative charge namely an electron
  • Due to their small mass, beta particles travel at the speed of light
  • Beta particles have therapeutic uses in eye cancer and bone treatment.

Gamma Rays 

Gamma rays are not particles with a mass. These are a kind of electromagnetic radiation which are considerably higher in energy as compared to X-rays. Being a form of energy, gamma rays have no mass and size. But these are far more harmful to humans as compared to the X-rays. However, the charge of gamma rays is neutral. 

Properties of Gamma particles 

  • Gamma particles have no mass
  • Gamma particles have no electrical charge
  • It can also travel at the speed of light
  • Gamma rays are used for sterilizing medical instruments and oncology.


Comparison chart 

Basis for comparison  Alpha  Beta  Gamma 
Representation  α  β  γ 
Charge  It is positively charged  It is positively or negatively charged  It has no charge 
Basic  It is similar to helium nucleus because of protons presence  It is a positron or an electron  It’s a photon that carries electromagnetic energy. 
Propagating speed  It is very less than the velocity of light  It is a little less than the velocity of light  It is equal to the velocity of light 
Size  It’s quite large  It is comparatively small  It is extremely minute because it is massless. 
Mass  6.65*10-27 Kg  9.10*10-31 Kg  0 
Application  In an unsealed source radiotherapy  In monitoring material thickness  In nuclear industry 

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