In its simplest form, an isotope is a chemical element, such as hydrogen, or iron or aluminium. Many (but not all) elements have several isotopes, that is forms of an element with different masses.
In its simplest form, an isotope is a chemical element, such as hydrogen, or iron or aluminium. Many (but not all) elements have several isotopes, that is forms of an element with different masses. In atomic chemistry, the nucleus of an atom is formed of protons and neutrons. The amount of protons determines what element the nucleus makes. Thus one proton means it’s hydrogen, two protons is helium, three lithium, and so on. But a nucleus with a fixed number of protons can have different numbers of neutrons. These affect the mass of the element, but not its type. For example, lithium (with three protons) can have either 3 or 4 neutrons, giving two different isotopes: Li-6 and Li-7. They’re both lithium, but with different masses. The same is true for most elements, right through to the heavy ones like uranium or thorium. Often, isotopes are radioactive, but many are also stable.
For example, carbon has three common isotopes. C-12 (the most common isotopes of carbon) and C-13 are stable. Add another neutron, and you get the unstable (radioactive) C-14, which is used to date archaeological material (also known as radiocarbon).
Natural processes (such as temperature, evaporation, crystallisation, etc.) cause small changes to the ratio of one isotope of an element to another. For example, plants prefer C-12 over C-13. Thus, if a lot of plankton is growing in the ocean, they will remove C-12 preferentially, changing the C-13/C-12 ratio of the remaining oceans.
These sorts of processes means that we have a toolbox in isotopes that can help us understand the modern and past environments.
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