Beta particles are high-energy, high-speed electrons or positrons emitted by certain types of radioactive nuclei such as potassium-40. The beta particles emitted are a form of ionizing radiation also known as beta rays. The production of beta particles is termed beta decay. They are designated by the Greek letter beta (β). There are two forms of beta decay, β− and β+, which respectively give rise to the electron and the positron.
β− decay (electron emission)
An unstable atomic nucleus with an excess of neutrons may undergo β− decay, where a neutron is converted into a proton, an electron and an electron-type antineutrino (the antiparticle of the neutrino):
This process is mediated by the weak interaction. The neutron turns into a proton through the emission of a virtual W− boson. At the quark level, W− emission turns a down-type quark into an up-type quark, turning a neutron (one up quark and two down quarks) into a proton (two up quarks and one down quark). The virtual W− boson then decays into an electron and an antineutrino.
Beta decay commonly occurs among the neutron-rich fission byproducts produced in nuclear reactors. Free neutrons also decay via this process. This is the source of the copious amount of electron antineutrinos produced by fission reactors.
β+ decay (positron emission)
Unstable atomic nuclei with an excess of protons may undergo β+ decay, also called positron decay, where a proton is converted into a neutron, a positron and an electron-type neutrino:
Beta plus decay can only happen inside nuclei when the absolute value of the binding energy of the daughter nucleus is higher than that of the mother nucleus.
Interaction with other matter
Of the three common types of radiation given off by radioactive materials, alpha, beta and gamma, beta has the medium penetrating power and the medium ionising power. Although the beta particles given off by different radioactive materials vary in energy, most beta particles can be stopped by a few millimeters of aluminum. Being composed of charged particles, beta radiation is more strongly ionising than gamma radiation. When passing through matter, a beta particle is decelerated by electromagnetic interactions and may give off bremsstrahlung x-rays.
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