About Isotopes

Isotopes are variants of chemical elements: while all isotopes of a given element contain the same number of protons, they vary in the number of neutrons they contain. Variation in neutron number produces chemically identical atoms with different masses, which can be exploited to allow tracing of specific individual atoms through a system.

Stable isotopes

Stable isotopes are generally defined as non-radioactive isotopic elements that do not decay over time. Radioactive isotopes may also be classified as stable isotopes when their half-lives are too long to be measured. These elements can often be found to occur in nature and include isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, noble gases and metals. For example, three naturally occurring isotopes of hydrogen include protium (H) having one neutron, deuterium (2H) having two neutrons, and tritium having three neutrons.

Isotopically labeled compounds

Isotopically labelled compounds are compounds that incorporate isotopic elements within their molecular structure and are thus "labelled" by the isotope. These compounds are used to study chemical and biochemical reactions, metabolic pathways or cellular transport. Specifically, isotope-labelled compounds are routinely used for a variety of applications including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), spectroscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), and geochemical analyses. An example of using an isotopic label includes replacing the most common isotope of hydrogen, protium, with deuterium to observe hydrogen exchange reactions in water.

Isotope separation methods

Distillation and Diffusion Processes

Distillation or diffusion are processes which are for enrichment used when there are relatively large mass differences between different isotopes of an element.

Centrifuge enrichment

Centrifuge processes for enrichment includes gas centrifugation and improvements upon the gas centrifuge techniques. This process involves rotating cylinders in order to move the heavier gas molecules containing a given isotope to the outer radius of the cylinder while collecting the lighter gas molecules containing the given isotope in the center of the cylinder.

Electromagnetic enrichment

Electromagnetic isotope separation processes involves first vaporizing the isotope containing molecules followed by ionizing the vapor with positively charged ions. A mass spectrometer, known as the Calutron, is then used to redirect a stream of cations onto a target for collection.

Other methods: laser enrichment, photochemical enrichment and plasma separation

Laser enrichment processes provide for lower energy inputs and thus more economical enrichment. One method currently under investigation is known as the Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitiation (SILEX). Another laser method that is used to enrich uranium containing the 235U atom is known as molecular laser isotope separation (MLIS) which involves using infrared laser at UF6 molecules and a second laser to free a fluorine atom resulting in precipitation of the remaining UF5 compound out of the gas.

Plasma separation involves the principle of ion cyclotron resonance and uses superconducting magnets to energize a given isotope in plasma consisting of an ionic mixture.



Metabolic studies

Biochemical markers and probes are used to research the uptake of compounds by the body. For example, nutritional studies are commonly performed using isotopic labeled compounds.

Brain and kidney function

Studies of brain and kidney function are performed by tracing isotopes throughout these organs for both diagnostics and treatment applications.


Precursors for therapeutic radioisotopes or radiation therapy are used for a variety of therapies. For example, neuroendocrine tumors are treated by radiotherapy using hormone bound lutetium-177 and yttrium-90.

Clinical pharmacology

Tracing drug metabolism requires the use of isotopes bound to drug in order to understand the processing of the given pharmaceutical by the body.



A wide range of biochemical processes can be studied using stable isotopes. For example, a technique known as stable isotope labeling by amino acids in cell culture (SILAC) is used in proteomics research to help identify disease biomarkers.


The use of isotope labeling allows chemists to study the mechanisms of chemical reactions, as individual atoms can be followed through a system.

Environmental science

Isotopes are valuable for studying release and spread of pollutants in the environment.


The tracing of isotope movement, either within a local system such as an estuary or on a global scale, can allow study of circulation patterns.


Various compounds labeled with nitrogen-15 are used in the study of processes such as plant metabolism and fertilizer uptake.

Recent Research & Development for Isotopes

Isolation and quantification of a Mo isotope solution from proton irradiated niobium., Roos, Per , Talanta, 2019 Nov 01, Volume 204, p.769-775, (2019)

Two-step extraction method for lead isotope fractionation to reveal anthropogenic lead pollution., Katahira, Kenshi, Moriwaki Hiroshi, Kamura Kazuo, and Yamazaki Hideo , Environ Technol, 2019 Nov, Volume 40, Issue 26, p.3473-3478, (2019)

PIDAZTA: Structurally Constrained Chelators for Efficient Formation of Stable Gallium-68 Complexes at Physiological pH., Giovenzana, Giovanni Battista, Farkas Edit, Vágner Adrienn, Negri Roberto, Lattuada Luciano, Tóth Imre, Colombo Valentina, Esteban-Gómez David, Platas-Iglesias Carlos, Notni Johannes, et al. , Chemistry, 2019 May 31, (2019)

Laser Spectroscopy of Neutron-Rich Tin Isotopes: A Discontinuity in Charge Radii across the N=82 Shell Closure., Gorges, C, Rodríguez L V., Balabanski D L., Bissell M L., Blaum K, Cheal B, Ruiz R F. Garcia, Georgiev G, Gins W, Heylen H, et al. , Phys Rev Lett, 2019 May 17, Volume 122, Issue 19, p.192502, (2019)

Experimental and theoretical study of rhenium radioisotopes production for manufacturing of new compositional radiopharmaceuticals., Pourhabib, Z, Ranjbar H, A Samani Bahrami, and Shokri A A. , Appl Radiat Isot, 2019 Mar, Volume 145, p.176-179, (2019)

Retention behavior of cesium radioisotope on poly (acrylamido-sulfonic acid) synthesized by chain polymerization., Hassan, H S., and Elmaghraby Elsayed K. , Appl Radiat Isot, 2019 Jan 30, Volume 146, p.40-47, (2019)

Efficient gallium-68 radiolabeling reaction of DOTA derivatives using a resonant-type microwave reactor., Yagi, Yusuke, Shimizu Yoichi, Arimitsu Kenji, Nakamoto Yuji, Higuchi Takahiro, Togashi Kaori, and Kimura Hiroyuki , J Labelled Comp Radiopharm, 2019 Jan 02, (2019)

Selective Resonance Photoionization of Odd Mass Zirconium Isotopes Towards Efficient Separation of Radioactive Waste., Fujiwara, Takashige, Kobayashi Tohru, and Midorikawa Katsumi , Sci Rep, 2019 Feb 11, Volume 9, Issue 1, p.1754, (2019)

Tungsten-Isotope specific UV-Photodecomposition of W(CO)6 at 266 nm., Ershov, Kirill, Kochubei Sergei A., and Baklanov Alexey V. , J Phys Chem A, 2019 Aug 15, (2019)

Salvage Radiopeptide Therapy of Advanced Castrate-Resistant Prostate Cancer with Lutetium-177-Labeled Prostate-Specific Membrane Antigen: Efficacy and Safety in Routine Practice., Kesavan, Murali, J Turner Harvey, Meyrick Danielle, Yeo Sharon, Cardaci Giuseppe, and Lenzo Nat P. , Cancer Biother Radiopharm, 2018 Sep, Volume 33, Issue 7, p.274-281, (2018)

Large Solvent Isotope Effect Associated with the Hydrolysis of Allylindium Iodide., Koszinowski, Konrad, and Stephenson David S. , J Org Chem, 2018 Nov 09, (2018)

Neodymium isotope evidence for glacial-interglacial variability of deepwater transit time in the Pacific Ocean., Hu, Rong, and Piotrowski Alexander M. , Nat Commun, 2018 Nov 09, Volume 9, Issue 1, p.4709, (2018)

Determination of Osmium Concentration and Isotope Composition at Ultra-low Level in Polar Ice and Snow., Seo, Ji-Hye, Sharma Mukul, Osterberg Erich C., and Jackson Brian P. , Anal Chem, 2018 May 01, Volume 90, Issue 9, p.5781-5787, (2018)

Mesoproterozoic juvenile crust in microcontinents of the Central Asian Orogenic Belt: evidence from oxygen and hafnium isotopes in zircon., He, Zhen-Yu, Klemd Reiner, Yan Li-Li, Lu Tian-Yu, and Zhang Ze-Ming , Sci Rep, 2018 Mar 22, Volume 8, Issue 1, p.5054, (2018)

Metallome evolution in ageing C. elegans and a copper stable isotope perspective., Sauzéat, Lucie, Laurençon Anne, and Balter Vincent , Metallomics, 2018 Mar 14, (2018)