Sunday, 10 April 2011

CASE 258 - Nuclear fission

Basic Nuclear Fission

Nuclear fission is the process of splitting atoms, or fissioning them. This page will explain to you the basics of nuclear fission. Before we talk about that, however, I would like to discuss marbles. Everyone's played with marbles at one time or another, right? Well, imagine about 200 marbles lying on a flat surface, all jumbled together, and roughly forming a circle. What would happen if someone took another marble and threw it at them? They would fly all around in different directions and groups, right? That is exactly what happens in nuclear fission. The filled circle is like an atom's nucleus. The marble being thrown is like a "neutron bullet". The only differences are that the marbles are protons and neutrons and the protons and neutrons aren't in a filled circle, but in the actual atom are in the shape of a sphere. Of course, an atom is also a bit more complicated than a pack of marbles.

Fissile Isotopes

Fissile isotopes are isotopes of an element that can be split through fission. Only certain isotopes of certain elements are fissile. For example, one isotope of uranium, 235U, is fissile, while another isotope, 238U, is not. Other examples of fissile elements are 239Pu and 232Th. An important factor affecting whether or not an atom will fission is the speed at which the bombarding neutron is moving. If the neutron is highly energetic (and thus moving very quickly), it can cause fission in some elements that a slower neutron would not. For example, thorium 232 requires a very fast neutron to induce fission. However, uranium 235 needs slower neutrons. If a neutron is too fast, it will pass right through a 235U atom without affecting it at all.

Splitting the Uranium Atom

Uranium is the principle element used in nuclear reactors and in certain types of atomic bombs. The specific isotope used is 235U. When a stray neutron strikes a 235U nucleus, it is at first absorbed into it. This creates 236U. 236U is unstable and this causes the atom to fission. The fissioning of 236U can produce over twenty different products. However, the products' masses always add up to 236. The following two equations are examples of the different products that can be produced when 235U fissions:

235U + 1 neutron 2 neutrons + 92Kr + 142Ba + ENERGY
235U + 1 neutron 2 neutrons + 92Sr + 140Xe + ENERGY

Where Does the Energy Come From?

In the section above we described what happens when an 235U atom fissions. We gave the following equation as an example:
235U + 1 neutron 2 neutrons + 92Kr + 142Ba + ENERGY

You might have been wondering, "Where does the energy come from?". The mass seems to be the same on both sides of the reaction:

235 + 1 = 2 + 92 + 142 = 236

Thus, it seems that no mass is converted into energy. However, this is not entirely correct. The mass of an atom is more than the sum of the individual masses of its protons and neutrons, which is what those numbers represent. Extra mass is a result of the binding energy that holds the protons and neutrons of the nucleus together. Thus, when the uranium atom is split, some of the energy that held it together is released as radiation in the form of heat. Because energy and mass are one and the same, the energy released is also mass released. Therefore, the total mass does decrease a tiny bit during the reaction.

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