Nuclear Reactions –Fission and Fusion

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Nuclear Physics

A little over a hundred years ago, scientists became increasingly interested in the detailed study of the properties, structure, and reactions of atomic nuclei, evolving into a new branch called Nuclear Physics. The study of Nuclear Reactions, in particular, has had a profound impact on humankind, with a wide range of applicability – power generation, nuclear weapons, nuclear medicine, fertilizer production, deep space exploration, and much more.

Two important phenomena are at the foundation of all these uses – Nuclear Fission and Nuclear Fusion.

Nuclear Fission

Fission is the process in which an atomic nucleus splits into two nearly equal parts, releasing a great amount of energy. This process occurs most readily in Heavy Elements such as Uranium and Plutonium.

Fission can occur naturally or it can be produced artificially by striking a fissionable nucleus with a neutron or some other nuclear particle. A nucleus in which fissions also release several neutrons, which may strike other nuclei causing them to fission. Thus, a continuous series of such fissions is triggered, known as a Chain Reaction. This chain reaction of fissioning nuclei produces the energy that is at the heart of nuclear reactors for power generation and nuclear weapons such as atomic bombs.

The particle accelerator at CERN, Geneva

Nuclear Fusion

Fusion is the process in which the nuclei of two atoms join together to form the nucleus of a heavier element, releasing a huge amount of energy, even more than fission does. This process occurs most readily with hydrogen and other Light Elements.

Fusion takes place when two nuclei at very high speeds collide with each other. High speed is essential to overcome the repulsion force between the nuclei, as they are both positively charged. Scientists use Particle Acceleratorsat extremely heated temperatures – more than 90 million oF – to attain this. The heavy Isotopes of hydrogen-deuterium and tritium – are used as fuel for most fusion experiments.

Fusion reactions are also called Thermonuclear Reactions. A fusion reaction is at the heart of the sun’s energy (and in other stars). It is what powers a hydrogen bomb.

Check Point

  1. The study of the properties, structure and reactions of atomic nuclei is called _______.
  2. Nuclear reactions are of two kinds: ________ and ________.
  3. Fission occurs most readily in ______ elements such as _______ and ________.
  4. A continuous series of fission reactions is known as a _______.
  5. Two nuclei colliding at very high speeds in a particle accelerator can cause ______.

Answer Key

  1. Nuclear Physics
  2. Nuclear Fission, Nuclear Fusion
  3. Heavy, Uranium, Plutonium
  4. Chain Reaction
  5. Nuclear Fusion

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