What is Radiation Physics?

Brenda Scott

Physics is the scientific study of matter and energy, and their interaction. Energy, such as light, heat or sound, which is emitted from one source, travels through space or material, and then is absorbed by another object, is defined as radiation. Radiation physics is the branch of physics that studies the effects of radiation on matter. This field has been instrumental in providing improved manufacturing processes, nuclear energy, and advanced medical diagnostic and treatment options.

An ultrasound may be used for diagnosing a variety of medical conditions.
An ultrasound may be used for diagnosing a variety of medical conditions.

The types of radiation studied by physicists include alpha, beta, and gamma rays, neutrons and x-rays. Alphas are particles containing two protons and two elections which are emitted from the nucleus of an atom. Betas are high speed particles which appear identical to electrons. Neutrons are the neutral particles within the nucleus of all cells. Gamma rays are emitted by the nucleus, and x-rays are a result of energy changes in the nucleus.

Radiation physics has medical applications, such as linear accelerators used for radiation therapy.
Radiation physics has medical applications, such as linear accelerators used for radiation therapy.

X-ray technology is one of the most familiar applications of radiation physics, and has several manufacturing applications. For example, the automobile industry uses high energy x-rays to evaluate engine performance. X-ray microscopes are used to inspect stents and catheters during the production process, and x-ray thickness gauges measure the chemical composition of metal alloys. X-ray radiography is even used by archaeologists to examine ancient artifacts.

In radiation physics, neutrons are the neutral particles within the nucleus of all cells.
In radiation physics, neutrons are the neutral particles within the nucleus of all cells.

The oil industry has employed radiation physics applications in the treatment and production of petroleum. Oil companies use a radiation process called radiation thermal cracking (RTC) during the production of crude oil, fuel oil, tar and the treatment of the waste byproducts of oil extraction. RTC has a higher production rate, lower cost, and much lower energy consumption than tradition methods. Radiation treatment of oil contaminants provides greater environmental protection than other methods.

Digital radiography technology allows dentists to take several X-rays of patients' teeth without exposing them to dangerous levels of radiation.
Digital radiography technology allows dentists to take several X-rays of patients' teeth without exposing them to dangerous levels of radiation.

Nuclear energy is a growing field which is based on applied radiation physics. Through a process known as nuclear fission, energy is extracted from atoms during controlled nuclear reactions. While the United States produces the largest quantity of nuclear power, France produces the highest percentage of its nation’s electrical supply through nuclear reactors.

Neutrons can be used by neutron microscopes to create images.
Neutrons can be used by neutron microscopes to create images.

The field which has benefited the most from radiation physics, however, is medicine. Through the application of physics, scientists have developed methods of using ionizing radiation for diagnosing and treating medical conditions. This includes not only the traditional forms of x-rays, but also ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and nuclear medicine.

X-ray microscopes are used to inspect catheters during the production process.
X-ray microscopes are used to inspect catheters during the production process.

The majority of nuclear medicine involves imaging and employs computers, sensors and radioactive materials called radiopharmaceuticals. X-rays, the oldest form of imaging, uses high frequency light rays to construct images. Gamma rays have even higher frequencies, and are used in nuclear imaging. Positron emission tomography (PET) and single photon emission computer tomography (SPECT) are two of the most widely used pieces of nuclear imaging equipment.

Nuclear medicine offers a minimally invasive, cost effective way to diagnose some cancers.
Nuclear medicine offers a minimally invasive, cost effective way to diagnose some cancers.

The most common use of radiation therapy is the for treatment of cancerous tumors. This usually involves depositing high energy x-rays into the cancer cells. The radiation is absorbed by the cell, causing it to die. Radiation is generally delivered to the tumor through an external source. The challenge for medical physicists is to direct the radiation in such a way that the minimum number of healthy cells are destroyed.

Radiation physics has allowed for the development of MRIs.
Radiation physics has allowed for the development of MRIs.

Radiation brachytherapy involves the internal application of radiation materials. In this treatment, radioactive “seeds” are implanted near the tumor. The release of radiation is slow, and the distance between the seeds and tumor is short enough that the radiation exposure to healthy cells is limited.

The benefits of radiation physics cross several disciplines and industries. Concerns over potential depletion of fossil fuels make the development of nuclear energy an on-going priority in many nations. The field of nuclear medicine is exploding, with new tests and treatments being developed rapidly, making radiation physics a discipline that will continue to grow.

Radiation allows precise targeting of a tumor, and this helps prevent extensive damage to healthy tissue.
Radiation allows precise targeting of a tumor, and this helps prevent extensive damage to healthy tissue.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments

anon225725

Actually the atomic nucleus is not in the center of the cell, the nucleus of the cell contains DNA and within the DNA there are different atoms, and within these atoms there are nuclei of protons and neutrons.

lovelife

I am studying to become and X-Ray technician. I just read about Marie Curie, Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel. Were it not for these physicists from the late 1800's and early 1900's, we might not have the advances that this discovery has allowed us, especially in the medical world.

It's sad, our text-book says they actually passed away very young from radiation exposure. I am thankful that although dangerous, it is much safer today because of the trial and error of people like these physicists.

Post your comments
Login:
Forgot password?
Register: