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This article is about the nuclear process. For the chemical process, see Internal conversion (chemistry).

Internal conversion is a radioactive decay process wherein an excited nucleus interacts electromagnetically with one the orbital electrons of the atom. This causes the electron to be emitted (ejected) from the atom. Thus, in an internal conversion process, a high-energy electron is emitted from the radioactive atom, not from the nucleus. For this reason, the high-speed electrons resulting from internal conversion are not beta particles, since the latter come from beta decay, where they are newly created in the nuclear decay process. Internal conversion is possible whenever gamma decay is possible, except in the case where the atom is fully ionised. During internal conversion, the atomic number does not change, and thus (as is the case with gamma decay) no transmutation of one element to another takes place. However, since an electron is lost, a hole appears in an electron shell which is subsequently filled producing an x ray or an Auger electron.

Since electrons from internal conversion carry a fixed fraction of the characteristic decay energy, they have a discrete energy spectrum rather than the spread (continuous) spectrum characteristic of beta particles. Whereas the energy spectrum of beta particles plots as a broad hump, the energy spectrum of internally converted electrons plots as a single sharp peak.

Internal conversion (often abbreviated IC) is favoured whenever the energy available for a gamma transition is small, and it is also the primary mode of de-excitation for 0→0 (i.e. E0) transitions. The 0→0 transitions occur where an excited nucleus has zero-spin and positive parity, and decays to a ground state which also has zero-spin and positive parity (such as all nuclides with even numbers of protons and neutrons). In such cases, de-excitation cannot happen with emission of a single gamma ray, so other mechanisms like IC predominate. This also shows that internal conversion (contrary to its name) is not a two-step process where a gamma ray would be first emitted and then converted.


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