Popcorn can be used to model radioactive decay. It is a lot
safer than using radioactive isotopes, as well as much tastier. What are the
similarities between popcorn and radioactive isotopes?

A radioactive isotope is an unstable atom. This is often due
to its size. As an atom gets larger the nucleus is no longer so tightly packed
together. Its surface area gets larger which means the forces which hold it
together must act over a greater distance and therefore become weaker. To
become more stable the nucleus may rearrange or lose mass, this is known as
radioactive decay. The original isotope, known as the “Parent” isotope, decays
into the more stable “Daughter” isotope. There are three types of radioactive
decay: Alpha, Beta and Gamma.

*Radioactive decay types (*https://ib.bioninja.com.au/standard-level/topic-5-evolution-and-biodi/51-evidence-for-evolution/radioactive-dating.html)

Webpages

- An article on the different types of radioactive decay from the Institute of Physics
- To visualise radioactive decay, have a play with the simulations from PHET Colorado (Alpha decay, Beta decay and Radioactive Dating Game)

If you have a sample of radioactive material, it is
impossible to know which individual isotope will decay when. Just like if you
were heating popcorn, you would have no idea which kernel will pop first. However, when we have a sample with a large
amount of the radioactive isotope, it is found that half of the isotope will
undergo decay in a set amount of time. This is known as it’s half-life. Each radioactive element will have its own
half-life time period.

Some radioactive elements have very long half-lives, which
means the decay rate is very slow. This is useful for dating rocks, as they are
generally very old. One example of this is Samarium- Neodymium. Samarium_147
decays though alpha decay to Neodymium and has a half-life of around 10 billion
years. This is not only used for dating very old igneous and metamorphic rocks,
but also meteorites.

Webpage

- Detail on other radiometric dating techniques

By comparing the percentage of the Parent element to the Daughter
element in a sample, we can calculate the age of the rock by drawing a decay
graph.

*Radioactive decay (*

*https://www.ck12.org/earth-science/radioactive-decay-as-a-measure-of-age/lesson/Radioactive-Decay-as-a-Measure-of-Age-HS-ES/*

*, accessed 8/4/2020)*

**Experiment**

Popcorn can be used to model radioactive decay. Check out this video to see how you can do an experiment at home to model radioactive
decay

*.*- Measure out 20g of popcorn – of course you can use more if you are really hungry!
- Pour the popcorn into a paper sandwich bag and fold the top over twice.
- Place the bag in the microwave with the folded edge facing upwards
- Set the time for about three minutes and press start.
- As soon as you have heard the first kernel pop, make a note of the time and continue running the microwave for 10 more seconds.
- Take the popcorn out and separate into kernels and popped corn. Count how many there is of each and record this in a table.
- Put the un-popped kernels aside. We cannot use these again for the experiment, however you can still cook them later for a snack.
- Repeat the investigation allowing the microwave to go for 20 then 30 and finally 40 seconds after the first pop, using the same amount of popcorn each time. Make sure you record your results in the table after each trial.

*If you don’t have a microwave just use a pan with the lid on. Make sure you spray the kernels with a little oil and give the pan a regular shake or the kernels will burn. Be careful around the hot stove and ask for parental assistance, if needed*

- For each trial, calculate the total number of corn (popped plus un-popped) and then find the percentage of un-popped kernels and the percentage popped corn of the total.

*Table of results*

- Plot a graph of percentage of kernels against length of time cooked after the first pop.

*Decay Rate of Popcorn*

You should end up with a graph similar to this. What you
should notice is that the longer the time the less kernels there are. The line
of best fit is curved and we call this a decay curve. This is exactly what a radioactive decay
curve looks like. We can use the graph to find the half-life of popcorn – in
this case the percentage of kernels was halved every 10 seconds, meaning the
half-life was 10 seconds.

Some sources of error:

- Every time you use your microwave, or pan and hob, it heats up. Allow them to cool between trials.
- The amount of popcorn used is quite small. A larger amount would give a smaller percentage uncertainty.

Now what to do with all that popcorn?

Check out these yummy popcorn recipes.

For more activities and information on radioactive decay,
have a look at our other free resources:

STEM project, Burying Nuclear Waste