The Mössbauer Effect

Mössbauer effect, also called recoil-free gamma-ray resonance absorption, nuclear process permitting the resonance absorption of gamma rays. It is made possible by fixing atomic nuclei in the lattice of solids so that energy is not lost in recoil during the emission and absorption of radiation. The process, discovered by the German-born physicist Rudolf L. Mössbauer in 1957, constitutes a useful tool for studying diverse scientific phenomena.

In order to understand the basis of the Mössbauer effect, it is necessary to understand several fundamental principles. The first of these is the Doppler shift. When a locomotive whistles, the frequency, or pitch, of the sound waves is increased while the whistle is approaching a listener and decreased as the whistle recedes. The Doppler formula expresses this change, or shift in frequency, of the waves as a linear function of the velocity of the locomotive. Similarly, when the nucleus of an atom radiates electromagnetic energy in the form of a wave packet known as a gamma-ray photon it is also subject to the Doppler shift. The frequency change, which is perceived as an energy change, depends on how fast the nucleus is moving with respect to the observer.

The second concept, that of nuclear recoil, may be illustrated by the behaviour of a rifle. If it is held loosely during firing, its recoil, or "kick" will be violent. If it is firmly held against the marksman's shoulder, the recoil will be greatly reduced. The difference in the two situations results from the fact that momentum (the product of mass and velocity) is conserved: the momentum of the system that fires a projectile must be opposite and equal to that of the projectile. By supporting the rifle firmly, the marksman includes his body, with its much greater mass, as part of the firing system and the backward velocity of the system is correspondingly reduced. An atomic nucleus is subject to the same law. When radiation is emitted in the form of a gamma ray, the atom with its nucleus experiences a recoil due to the momentum of the gamma ray. A similar recoil occurs during absorption of radiation by a nucleus.

Finally, it is necessary to understand the principles governing the absorption of gamma rays by nuclei. Nuclei can exist only in certain definite energy states. For a gamma ray to be absorbed its energy must be exactly equal to the difference between two of these states. Such an absorption is called resonance absorption. A gamma ray that is ejected from a nucleus in a free atom cannot be resonantly absorbed by a similar nucleus in another atom because its energy is less than the resonance energy by an amount equal to the kinetic energy given to the recoiling source nucleus.

Proofreading: Dr. Petousis