Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne C14 Decay and Nitrogen Ion

Name: Eric Status: educator Grade: 9-12 Country: USA Date: Winter 2011-2012

When carbon-14 decays to nitrogen it gains a proton, however this means that the nitrogen atom is "short" one electron so it has more protons than electrons. Does the new nitrogen atom stay as an ion and if not where does it get the "extra" electron?

Charge is conserved in all interactions. When the neutron decays, it produces an electron and an antineutrino as well as a proton. The electron produced usually is moving so fast that it escapes, but electrons can shuffle around. Generally a lot of free radicals are created.

Richard E. Barrans Jr., Ph.D., M.Ed. Department of Physics and Astronomy University of Wyoming

I do not know if I have ever seen an answer to this question. As you know, however, this decay does not occur in a vacuum, it occurs with all kinds of other substances around it. Further, the beta particle that is emitted is--for all practical purposes--as electron. Conceivably, the beta particle (electron) could be entrapped by neighboring newly-formed nitrogens.

Ray Tedder, NBCT Chemistry Teacher


You are correct in stating that as C-14 become N-14 there is a transmutation of a neutron to a proton and we should therefore expect that N-14 is positively charged. However, from an empirical point of view we cannot capture a single C-14 becoming N-14. We can only observe a mass of C-14 and realize that there is a spontaneous decay in the sample to N-14. We can then look at the N-14 to see if it is neutral or not. When we do this we find very little (if any) positively charge N-14. Now, is it because the N-14 is produced as a neutral atom, is produced as a positively charged N-14 which captures the electron that is also produced in the same beta decay, or the positive N-14 is produced and then later captures free electrons ... hard to say, because all we can observe is the mass of sample, not individual C-14's and N-14's.

Greg (Roberto Gregorius) Canisius College

Click here to return to the Chemistry Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory