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Positron emission is a type of beta decay, sometimes referred to as "beta plus" (β+). In beta plus decay, a proton is converted, via the weak force, to a neutron, a positron (also known as the "beta plus particle", the antimatter counterpart of an electron), and a neutrino.
Isotopes which undergo this decay and thereby emit positrons include carbon-11, potassium-40, nitrogen-13, oxygen-15, fluorine-18, and iodine-121. As an example, the following equation describes the beta plus decay of carbon-11 to boron-11, emitting a positron β+ and a neutrino νe:
These isotopes are used in positron emission tomography, a technique used for medical imaging.
Nuclei which decay by positron emission may also decay by electron capture. For low-energy decays, electron capture is energetically favored by 2mec2 = 1.022 MeV, since the final state has an electron removed rather than a positron added. As the energy of the decay goes up, so does the branching ratio towards positron emission. However, if the energy difference is less than 2mec2, then positron emission cannot occur and electron capture is the sole decay mode. Certain isotopes (for instance, 7Be) are stable in galactic cosmic rays, because the electrons are stripped away and the decay energy is too small for positron emission.