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Type of radioactive disintegration (seeradioactivity) in which some unstable atomic nuclei dissipate excess energy by spontaneously ejecting an alpha particle. Alpha particles have two positive charges and a mass of four atomic mass units; they are identical to helium nuclei. Though they are emitted at speeds about one-tenth that of light, they are not very penetrating and have ranges in air of about 1–4 in. (2.5–10 cm). Alpha decay commonly occurs in elements with atomic numbers greater than 83 (bismuth), but can occur in some rare-earth elements in the atomic-number range of 60 (neodymium) to 71 (lutetium). Alpha decay half-lives range from about a microsecond (106 second) to billions of years (1017 seconds).
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on alpha decay, visit Britannica.com.