While discovered less than 100 years ago, isotopes are now used in a wide variety of scientific applications that touch the lives of almost every citizen. These include:
- Radiopharmaceuticals used for medical imaging in the diagnosis of a wide range of ailments, from pneumonia to heart problems to cancer;
- Radiopharmaceuticals for cancer treatment and other therapeutic applications;
- Smoke detectors used in our home and offices;
- Batteries that power NASA satellites in the far reaches of our solar system;
- Control rods that prevent nuclear power reactors from melting down;
- As a "fingerprint" used in forensic analysis of food preparation sites and techniques;
- To calibrate detectors used to keep our shipping ports safe from nuclear terrorism;
- To enable new sources of energy such as nuclear fusion;
- And many other applications in energy production, industrial diagnostic methods, archeology, geology, ecology, astronomy, and physics.
There are 90 naturally occurring elements with roughly 250 stable isotopes, and over 3200 unstable or radioactive isotopes. Different isotopes of the same element often have completely different properties — making some of them invaluable for mankind, and others worthless [for the time being].
The production of separated isotopic samples — whereby the purity of one isotope is greatly enhanced over its natural abundance — can be very time consuming and expensive, and supplying the amounts needed for the growing demand in the above applications is a tremendous challenge.