Protons and neutrons are bound inside nuclei, that means energy must be supplied to break them away. The situation is analogous to a marble in a bowl that can roll around but lacks the energy to get over the rim. It is bound inside the bowl (see this figure). If the marble could get over the rim, it would gain kinetic energy by rolling down outside. However classically, if the marble does not have enough kinetic energy to get over the rim, it remains forever trapped in its well.

In a nucleus, the attractive nuclear potential is analogous to the bowl at the top of a volcano (where the “volcano” refers only to the shape). Protons and neutrons have kinetic energy, but it is about 8 MeV less than that needed to get out (see this figure). That is, they are bound by an average of 8 MeV per nucleon. The slope of the hill outside the bowl is analogous to the repulsive Coulomb potential for a nucleus, such as for an \(\alpha \) particle outside a positive nucleus. In \(\alpha \) decay, two protons and two neutrons spontaneously break away as a \({}^{4}\text{He}\) unit. Yet the protons and neutrons do not have enough kinetic energy to get over the rim. So how does the \(\alpha \) particle get out?

The answer was supplied in 1928 by the Russian physicist George Gamow (1904–1968). The \(\alpha \) particle tunnels through a region of space it is forbidden to be in, and it comes out of the side of the nucleus. Like an electron making a transition between orbits around an atom, it travels from one point to another without ever having been in between. This figure indicates how this works. The wave function of a quantum mechanical particle varies smoothly, going from within an atomic nucleus (on one side of a potential energy barrier) to outside the nucleus (on the other side of the potential energy barrier).

Inside the barrier, the wave function does not become zero but decreases exponentially, and we do not observe the particle inside the barrier. The probability of finding a particle is related to the square of its wave function, and so there is a small probability of finding the particle outside the barrier, which implies that the particle can tunnel through the barrier. This process is called barrier penetration or quantum mechanical tunneling. This concept was developed in theory by J. Robert Oppenheimer (who led the development of the first nuclear bombs during World War II) and was used by Gamow and others to describe \(\alpha \) decay.

Good ideas explain more than one thing. In addition to qualitatively explaining how the four nucleons in an \(\alpha \) particle can get out of the nucleus, the detailed theory also explains quantitatively the half-life of various nuclei that undergo \(\alpha \) decay. This description is what Gamow and others devised, and it works for \(\alpha \) decay half-lives that vary by 17 orders of magnitude. Experiments have shown that the more energetic the \(\alpha \) decay of a particular nuclide is, the shorter is its half-life.

Tunneling explains this in the following manner: For the decay to be more energetic, the nucleons must have more energy in the nucleus and should be able to ascend a little closer to the rim. The barrier is therefore not as thick for more energetic decay, and the exponential decrease of the wave function inside the barrier is not as great. Thus the probability of finding the particle outside the barrier is greater, and the half-life is shorter.

Tunneling as an effect also occurs in quantum mechanical systems other than nuclei. Electrons trapped in solids can tunnel from one object to another if the barrier between the objects is thin enough. The process is the same in principle as described for \(\alpha \) decay. It is far more likely for a thin barrier than a thick one. Scanning tunneling electron microscopes function on this principle. The current of electrons that travels between a probe and a sample tunnels through a barrier and is very sensitive to its thickness, allowing detection of individual atoms as shown in this figure.

PhET Explorations: Quantum Tunneling and Wave Packets

Watch quantum “particles” tunnel through barriers. Explore the properties of the wave functions that describe these particles.

Quantum Tunneling and Wave Packets

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