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Production of radioisotopes

There are three methods for producing radioisotopes:

  • Cyclotron
  • Nuclear reactor
  • Radionuclide generator



This method of producing radioisotopes is also called nuclear bombardment.

  1. The cyclotron consists of a vacuum chamber into which particles are injected into the centre
  2. These are accelerated in a circular path by a high frequency alternating voltage applied between two D-shaped electrodes (these are called “dee’s”). The dee’s are hollow and allow the particles to move between them
  3. The particles are then made to move in a spiral pattern from the centre of the vacuum chamber to the outside by applying a large static magnetic field
  4. As the particles’ path leads them to the edge of the cyclotron they eventually enter the bombardment chamber and interact with the target to produce the radioisotopes.

Cyclotron produced radioisotopes

  • Technetium-99m – used in 80% of nuclear medicine studies. The target is molybdenum which is bombarded to produce molybdenum-99. This then decays to Technetium-99m which is used in imaging.
  • Fluorine-18 – used in FDG PET scanning as well as with choline. Created by bombarding 18O rich water with protons to produce 18F. 18F has a half-life of 1.87 hours and releases gamma rays with an energy of 511 keV.
  • Gallium-67 – used as 67Ga-citrate for imaging of inflammation / tumours.
  • Thallium-201 – used as 201Tl-chloride in cardiac function imaging.

Nuclear reactor

Nuclear generator
Nuclear generator
  1. The core of 235Uranium undergoes spontaneous fission into lighter fragments emitting two or three fission neutrons in the process
  2. These fission neutrons then interact with 235U to produce the highly unstable 236U which carries on the fission event in a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction
  3. Materials can be lowered into ports in the reactor to be irradiated by the neutrons. Neutron capture then creates isotopes of the target element

The fission activity can be controlled with control rods that engulf the cores and are made of material that absorbs the neutrons without undergoing fission (e.g. cadmium or boron) preventing further fission events.

The moderator rods are made of a material that slows down the energetic fission neutrons. Slower neutrons are more efficient at initiating additional fission events.

Radionuclides produced by neutron activation

  • Neutrons are added to isotopes creating a heavy isotope that generally lie above the line of stability. This means they tend to decay in β-emission.
  • Only a very small fraction of the target nuclei are activated
  • A disadvantage of a nuclear reactor is the relatively low yield of the desired radioisotope and the substantial production of other radioisotopes.

Reactor produced radioisotopes

  • Molybdenum-98 – used in cyclotrons to produce molybenum-99 which decays to technetium-99m
  • Iodine-131 – used in treating and in imaging the thyroid gland
  • Xenon-133 – used in lung ventilation studies. Half-life of 5 days so can be transported readily unlike krypton-81m (half-life of 13 seconds)

Radionuclide generator

Radionuclide generator
Radionuclide generator
  1. A slow-decaying parent radionuclide is adsorbed onto a surface such as alumina in a sterile glass column encased in a lead or depleted uranium shield
  2. This parent radionuclide decays into the shorter-lived radionuclide that will be used for the nuclear imaging – the “daughter” radionuclide
  3. The “daughter” radionuclide is removed by passing an eluting solvent (such as sterile saline) through the glass column
  4. The resulting solution is collected into a vial which collects the daughter solvent via a vacuum action

This method of producing radionuclides is useful when using a short lived radionuclide as it needs to be produced near the patient. In this way the generator can travel whilst producing the daughter radioisotope to the site of use at which point it can be eluted. Each time the radioisotope is eluted its activity (concentration) drops to zero. It then steadily builds up again until it is eluted again.

Decay in a generator

Generator produced radionuclides

Technetium-99m, the most commonly used radioisotope, is produced in this way from the longer-lived Molybdenum-99 (created by cyclotrons) which decays via beta decay.

Another radioisotope produced by this method is Krypton-81m, used in lung ventilation studies.

  • Rubidium-81 is produced by a cyclotron
  • Adsorbed onto zirconium phosphate in the generator
  • Decays into Krypton-81m by electron capture and beta decay
  • Krypton-81m is then extracted from the column by blowing air through it

Written by radiologists, for radiologists with plenty of easy-to-follow diagrams to explain complicated concepts. An excellent resource for radiology physics revision.

Σ  Summary


  1. Particles injected into centre
  2. Accelerated in spiral path to the outside by Dee electrodes and static magnetic field
  3. Enter bombardment chamber and interact with target to produce radioisotopes
  • Products: Fluorine-18, Gallium-67, Thalium-201, Krypton-81m, Molybdenum-99

Nuclear reactor

  1. Core Uranium-235 undergoes spontaneous fission releasing neutrons
  2. Neutrons interact with Uranium-235 releasing highly unstable Uranium-236 which induces further fission – chain reaction
  3. Materials lowered into ports to be irradiated by neutrons and converting into desired isotope
  • Fission activity controlled by control rods that cover uranium rods and absorb fission neutrons to prevent chain reaction
  • Moderator rods slow down energetic fission neutrons to make fission more efficient
  • Products: Molybdenum, Iodine-131, Xenon-133


  1. Parent radionuclide adsorbed onto surface e.g alumina in a glass column. Decays into daughter nuclide
  2. Daughter nuclide removed by passing solvent through the glass column
  3. Eluted daughter activity collected in vial via vacuum action
  • Products: Technetium-99m, Krypton-81m