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The Efficacious Uses of Stable Isotopes

Fractionation

  • Elements like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen have more than one stable isotope. For example, most carbon atoms have an atomic weight of 12, while a few have an atomic weight of 13. Fractionation is a change in the ratio that two such isotopes bear to one another. For example, the two carbon isotopes bear a definite ratio to one another in atmospheric carbon dioxide. However, when atmospheric carbon dioxide undergoes chemical reactions, the two isotopes bear a different ratio to one another in the products of the reaction because the two isotopes react at different rates. Physical processes may also result in fractionation, since two isotopes may undergo physical changes at a different rate.

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