In April 1986, a nuclear accident at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant caused catastrophic damage to an entire region of Ukraine. The accident exposed hundreds of workers, Ukrainian citizens, and people in neighboring countries to severe ionizing radiation, leading to the abandonment of an entire city.
Fortunately, these levels of ionizing radiation don’t normally exist in our everyday lives. Both X-rays and gamma rays, with their high energy levels, offer special uses that we wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Continue reading for everything you should know while comparing X-rays vs gamma rays.
X-Rays vs Gamma Rays: Side-by-Side Comparison
|Discovered By||Wilhelm Röntgen||Ernest Rutherford|
|Frequency||3 x 1016 – 3 x 1019Hz||>3 x 1019Hz|
|Wavelength||10 – .001nm||<.001nm|
|Energy Level||12keV – 12MeV||>100keV|
|Applications||Astronomy, imaging, irradiation, cancer treatment, nuclear medicine||Radiography, CT scanning, crystallography, astronomy, quality control|
|Possible Hazards||Cancer induction, genetic damage, tissue damage, hair loss, hemorrhages, death||Increased risk of cancer|
X-Rays vs Gamma Rays: What’s the Difference?
Gamma rays and X-rays are both examples of ionizing radiation on the electromagnetic spectrum. But what sets them apart?
In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays while experimenting with electron beam discharges. While unknown where they came from (hence the X), it was determined that they involved the massive energizing of an atom’s composition. As the study of X-rays continued, scientists started using special electron tubes to activate the electrons in atoms in order to direct the resulting radiation emission.
When searching along the electromagnetic spectrum, X-rays are found in between ultraviolet radiation and gamma rays. Because of their incredibly high frequency and short wavelength, researchers tend to designate this form of radiation using their energy levels.
X-rays typically range from 12keV to 12MeV, which correlates with wavelengths of 10 – .001nm and frequencies of 3 x 1016 – 3 x 1019Hz. To get an idea of how small these rays are, the wavelength of this type of radiation measures about the diameter of a single atom.
Due to their powerful nature, X-rays have the ability to ionize atoms, which means they can disrupt or alter their chemical bonds. This property allows researchers to use them in a variety of special applications.
Most commonly, X-rays are used for medical radiography and airport security. Scientists and medical professionals can control the frequency of this radiation to ensure the level of exposure is non-hazardous, making it ideal for examining the human body.
While most of the X-ray frequency isn’t strong enough to cause physical harm, regular exposure to higher frequencies can result in an increased chance of cancer later in life. As this type of radiation reaches the threshold of gamma rays, the risk of cancer becomes considerable.
However, it’s important to know that people are regularly exposed to background X-rays on a daily basis; on average, we experience about .01 millisieverts of radiation per day. Therefore, exposure to more high-frequency radiation from time to time isn’t an aspect worth the worry.
Gamma Ray Origin
Scientists in the late 1800s experimenting with radioactive decay discovered an emission that featured different characteristics than those of the alpha and beta rays that were expected. While directing it through crystal surfaces in 1914, New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford confirmed this special emission as an electromagnetic wave rather than a physical particle.
Gamma rays take the source of X-rays even further; this type of radiation requires the atom to get so excited that its nucleus alters its composition, requiring it to find a new equilibrium. The resulting energy is released as gamma radiation.
Gamma Ray Spectrum
Found beyond X-rays on the electromagnetic spectrum, this type of radiation is the most powerful in the universe. High-frequency gamma rays can result in gamma-ray bursts (GRB), cosmic events that release more energy in a matter of seconds than our Sun will release in its entire lifetime.
Researchers tend to measure gamma rays by their energy level. This form of radiation includes any wave higher than 100keV.
This correlates with frequencies of more than 30 exahertz (3 x 1019Hz) and wavelengths of less than a hundredth of an angstrom (.001nm). If you thought X-rays were small, gamma rays take it even further; the wavelength of this type of radiation can measure the diameter of an atom’s nucleus or even smaller.
Gamma Ray Applications
The immense power of gamma rays can pierce through most materials, requiring heavy shields of dense lead for protection. When used practically, medical professionals can focus the radiation on cancer cells to obliterate them. Gamma rays are also used to image the contents of shipping containers and measure the density of certain products.
Gamma Ray Dangers
Medical applications aside, exposure to high levels of gamma rays can have serious, adverse effects. This type of radiation has so much penetrating power that it can pierce through the human body, ionizing cells as it passes.
This can result in radiation sickness, hair loss, and skin sores. More extreme exposure to gamma rays can result in tissue damage, DNA alteration, and even death.
Fortunately, there are no natural sources that produce enough gamma radiation to concern yourself over. This type of radiation attenuates in the atmosphere so, unless a GRB occurred in our vicinity, we’re protected.
X-Rays vs Gamma Rays: 5 Must-Know Facts
- Both X-rays and gamma rays are considered ionizing radiation, which means they are so powerful that they can alter the composition of atoms.
- X-rays were discovered by accident as Wilhelm Röntgen was experimenting with electron beam discharge.
- Gamma rays are so powerful that researchers have to use thick sheets of lead as shields for protection.
- X-rays include very little exposure hazard despite their ionizing qualities.
- The highest burst of energy in the known universe is a gamma-ray burst, which can release more energy in a few seconds than our Sun will in its entire lifetime.
X-Rays vs Gamma Rays: Which Is Better?
When comparing X-rays vs gamma rays, it’s no question that one is more powerful than the other. Gamma rays include the entire electromagnetic spectrum of energy beyond 100 keV, which allows them more versatility in energetic potential. Gamma-ray bursts, the most spectacular display of unleashed energy in the universe, are one of the highlights among NASA astronomers.
However, due to its insanely high threshold, there’s very little that we can do with that kind of power. The applications of gamma rays are limited to some industrial uses and incredibly delicate surgical procedures. On the other hand, X-rays have just enough power across their spectrum to find a variety of uses without causing damage.
At the end of the day, the hazard potential is what makes x-rays the better choice for humans. There is significantly less chance for someone to experience adverse effects from x-ray exposure, especially since the amount of practical use barely exceeds the amount we are subjected to as regular background radiation.
Comparing these two types of ionizing radiation allows us to better understand how their applications affect us in our everyday lives. From imaging to cancer treatment, we’re safe to know that in good hands, both X-rays and gamma rays offer significant benefits. For more on how we use the electromagnetic spectrum, check out the articles below.
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