With Japan’s earthquake-spawned nuclear tragedy gobbling up all the attention in the headlines these days, it’s easy to question why mad scientists ever thought it would be a good idea to boil water with uranium and plutonium? Few natural effects are as misunderstood by the public as radioactivity and radiation. The truth is there are many uses for radiation that are safe and beneficial outside of generating power or blowing stuff up with bombs. In light of the nuclear tragedy in Japan, here are my top 10 uses for radiation that are not making electricity or blowing stuff up.
If you’ve been through an airport recently, you’re probably all too familiar with x-ray baggage checks and their redheaded cousins, those controversial backscatter machines. X-ray security machines share ancestry with and use similar radiation as the devices your dentist uses to snap pics of your tooth decay. What you might not have realized is that radiation also plays a role in detecting explosive and narcotic traces. By utilizing ion mobility spectrometry, these machines are able to “smell” the trace elements found in most explosives, hopefully ensuring you reach your destination without your plane exploding.
9. Space Exploration
Interstellar space is a cold dark place–so cold (approaching absolute zero) that spacecraft need to keep critical moving parts warm so that they don’t freeze and lock up. NASA solved this problem by placing heating elements containing radioactive material in the critical areas. As the material decays, it gives off a small amount of precious heat which keeps important parts like camera mounts and sensor doors moving at near absolute zero temps.
Special devices and gauges that utilize radiation are used throughout manufacturing and industry to make super accurate measurements of stuff that wouldn’t normally be detectable by other conventional means. Whether you want to check for defects in welds, fluid levels in sealed systems, or make incredibly accurate, tiny physical measurements, radiation is your go-to tool for the job.
Patients with compromised immune systems who require blood transfusions can develop severe problems if they are exposed to foreign antibodies and bacteria from donors’ blood. The solution–expose the donated blood to some good old fashioned radiation to kill off the unwanted antibodies while keeping the red cells intact. The same process also extends the shelf life of some of your favorite foods. Usually foods are sterilized with heat (pasteurization) to kill off the bacteria present, or refrigerated to slow the decay. By irradiating foods to kill off the unwanted microbes, you can preserve food that can’t traditionally be pasteurized or refrigerated.
6. Carbon Dating
Carbon 14 breaks down radioactively over time at constant rate. Because of this fact, scientists use the ratio of carbon 14 isotopes within an object to figure out the object’s approximate age. With this tool we’ve been able to accurately date items like dinosaur bones and early human remains, broadening our understanding of natural history and solving age old riddles like, “did men walk with dinosaurs?”
5. Promoting Genetic Mutation
Radiation’s ability to mess with your DNA and cause everything from cancers to superpowers is well documented in pop culture lore from comic books to movies, but could that ability be put to use for good? By exposing seeds to doses of radiation, growers are causing genetic mutations in their seeds on purpose. Unlike what you may have read in the comics, mutations from radiation can actually help growers evolve beneficial plant traits like insect and pesticide resistance.
4. Clean Air
Clean Coal is one of those buzz words thrown around by politicians, but very few realize that one way we scrub our smokestack emissions is by zapping them with electron beam radiation. The scourge of environmentalists everywhere, radiation, is ironically one of the best ways we combat acid rain and remove chemicals like sulfur dioxide from smoke before they go out in to the world and pollute.
3. Smoke Detectors
Ever change the battery on your smoke detector and notice the warning saying there’s a radioactive substance inside the device? Many older smoke detectors utilize a radiation emitting substance, americium-241, to sniff for smoke. When a smoke particle breaks the stream of radiation between the americium and a detector, the alarm sounds, giving you the precious few seconds extra warning to get out of the house or an annoying reminder that you just burned your roast.
2. Nuclear Medicine
One of the greatest dangers from nuclear fallout is ingestion of small radioactive particles that can wind up lodged in your body causing cancers and other problems. So why in your right mind would you ever purposely ingest a radioactive substance? By sending a radioactive material throughout the body, doctors can look at the radiation coming out and determine all sorts of important things like organ function, blood flow, and even detect certain cancers.
1. X-Ray Imaging
Wilhelm Rontgen put his discovery of X-Ray radiation to use for medicine back in 1895 by taking an image of the bones in his hand. Since then it’s hard to imagine having a modern medical procedure or diagnosis without first having X-Ray images. Simply by allowing doctors to peer inside our bodies and see what’s going on, radiation has probably saved countless more lives than it has claimed.