Nuclear Chemistry at Work
How are isotopes made?
Specific isotopes of an element can be obtained in one of two ways: either by separation of the desired isotope from a naturally occurring sample or by synthesis of the desired isotope.
Since the different isotopes of an element all have the same chemical properties, they can be quite difficult to separate. The separation techniques used to separate different isotopes are thus based on their differences in mass, rather than on differences in chemical properties. Some of the methods used include separation by diffusion in the gas or liquid phases, centrifugation, ionization and mass spectrometry, or chemical methods based on differences in reaction rates due to different atomic masses.
Different isotopes of an element can also be generated synthetically. One way to do this is to fire high-energy particles at the nucleus of an atom. Depending on the situation, this can either cause a particle to be emitted from the parent nucleus (generating a lighter nucleus) or the fired particle can be absorbed (generating a heavier nucleus). It is also possible to synthesize isotopes of some elements by making use of another naturally occurring nuclear reaction, such as when the particles released by one nuclear fission reaction are absorbed by another nucleus.