Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Nuclear Fission

Nuclear fission is the process of splitting atoms often producing free neutrons and other smaller nuclei, which may eventually produce photons in the form of gamma rays. The sum of the masses of these neutrons is less than the original mass. This 'missing' mass has been converted into energy according to Einstein's equation. Fission of heavy elements is an exothermic, chain reaction which can release large amounts of energy both as electromagnetic radiation and as kinetic energy of the fragments.

Nuclear fission produces energy for nuclear power and to drive the explosion of nuclear weapons. Both uses are made possible because certain substances called nuclear fuels undergo fission when struck by free neutrons and in turn generate neutrons when they break apart. This makes possible a self-sustaining chain reaction that releases energy at a controlled rate in a nuclear reactor or at a very rapid uncontrolled rate in a nuclear weapon.

Nuclear fission differs from other forms of radioactive decay in that it can be harnessed and controlled via a chain reaction: free neutrons released by each fission can trigger yet more atom splits, which in turn release more neutrons which cause even more fissions. Chemical isotopes that can sustain a fission chain reaction are called nuclear fuels, and are said to be fissile. The most common nuclear fuels are Uranium-235 with an atomic mass of 235 and of use in nuclear reactors, and plutonium-239 with an atomic mass of 239.

In one of the most remarkable phenomena in nature, a slow neutron can be captured by a uranium-235 nucleus, rendering it unstable toward nuclear fission. A fast neutron will not be captured, so neutrons must be slowed down by moderation to increase their capture probability in fission reactors. A single fision event can yield over 200 million times the energy of the neutron which triggered it.

A fission bomb is a fission reactor designed to liberate as much energy as possible as rapidly as possible, before the released energy causes the reactor to explode, and the chain reaction to stop. Development of nuclear weapons was the motivation behind early research into nuclear fission: the Manhattan Project of the U.S. military during World War II carried out most of the early scientific work on fission chain reactions, culminating in the Trinity, Little Boy, and Fat Man bombs that were exploded over test sites, the cities Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, Japan in August 1945.