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Industrial Applications

The applications of radioisotopes in industry are numerous. Many types of thickness gauges exploit the fact that gamma rays are attenuated when they pass through material. By measuring the number of gamma rays, the thickness can be determined. This process is used in common industrial applications such as:

    1. the automobile industry–to test steel quality in the manufacture of cars and to obtain the proper thickness of tin and aluminum
    2. the aircraft industry–to check for flaws in jet engines
    3. construction–to gauge the density of road surfaces and subsurfaces
    4. pipeline companies–to test the strength of welds
    5. oil, gas, and mining companies–to map the contours of test wells and mine bores, and
    6. cable manufacturers–to check ski lift cables for cracks.

The isotope 241Am is used in many smoke detectors for homes and businesses (as mentioned previously), in thickness gauges designed to measure and control metal foil thickness during manufacturing processes, to measure levels of toxic lead in dried paint samples, and to help determine where oil wells should be drilled.

The isotope 252Cf (a neutron emitter) is used for neutron activation analysis, to inspect airline luggage for hidden explosives, to gauge the moisture content of soil and other materials, in bore hole logging in geology, and in human cervix-cancer therapy.

In addition, there are manifold uses in agriculture. In plant research, radiation is used to develop new plant types to speed up the process of developing superior agricultural products. Insect control is another important application; pest populations are drastically reduced and, in some cases, eliminated by exposing male insects to sterilizing doses of radiation. Fertilizer consumption has been reduced through research with radioactive tracers. Radiation pellets are used in grain elevators to kill insects and rodents. Irradiation prolongs the shelf-life of foods by destroying bacteria, viruses, and molds.

The useful application of radioisotopes extends to the arts and humanities. Neutron activation analysis is extremely useful in identifying the chemical elements present in coins, pottery, and other artifacts from the past. A tiny unnoticeable fleck of paint from an art treasure or a microscopic grain of pottery suffices to reveal its chemical makeup. Thus the works of famous painters can be "fingerprinted" so as to detect the work of forgers.

Neutron scattering has proved to be a valuable tool for studying the molecular structure and motion of molecules of interest to manufacturing and life processes. Accelerators and reactors produce low-speed neutrons with wavelength appropriate to "see" structures of the size of magnetic microstructures and DNA molecules. Neutrons can penetrate deeply into bulk materials and use their magnetic moment or strong interaction forces to preferentially scatter from magnetic domains or hydrogen atoms in long chain nucleosomes. Neutrons are also used in materials surface and interface studies taking advantage of their reflectivity properties. Intense sources of neutrons include: the IPNS at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and LANSCE at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

  last updated: August 9, 2000 webmaster