What could one do with a clean source of nuclear energy? That tantalizing question reflects a dream that some have hoped to realize by exploiting the energy-storage capabilities of nuclear isomers. But the hope hinges on facets of nuclear behavior that remain unknown despite decades of study. Electromagnetic transitions and β decay, the basic mechanisms that largely determine isomer half-lives, are well understood. In many cases, however, it is still not possible to predict half-lives even to within an order of magnitude.

Today’s isomer research seeks a better understanding of the degrees of freedom that will reveal new aspects of nuclear structure and lead the way to new applications. In this article, we lay out the essential ingredients of nuclear isomerism and take a look at future possibilities.

The term “isomer” is borrowed from chemistry, where it refers to molecules that have different geometrical configurations of the same collection...

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