Nuclear Fission

If a massive nucleus like uranium-235 breaks apart (fissions), then there will be a net yield of energy because the sum of the masses of the fragments will be less than the mass of the uranium nucleus. If the mass of the fragments is equal to or greater than that of iron at the peak of the binding energy curve, then the nuclear particles will be more tightly bound than they were in the uranium nucleus, and that decrease in mass comes off in the form of energy according to the Einstein equation. For elements lighter than iron, fusion will yield energy.

Other fissionable isotopes are plutonium-239, uranium-233, and thorium-232.

Index

Fission concepts
 
HyperPhysics***** Nuclear R Nave
Go Back





Uranium-235 Fission

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!

More detailed illustrationComparison with fusionSome history.
Index

Fission concepts
 
HyperPhysics***** Nuclear R Nave
Go Back





Uranium Fuel

Natural uranium is composed of 0.72% U-235 (the fissionable isotope), 99.27% U-238, and a trace quantity 0.0055% U-234 . The 0.72% U-235 is not sufficient to produce a self-sustaining critical chain reaction in U.S. style light-water reactors, although it is used in Canadian CANDU reactors. For light-water reactors, the fuel must be enriched to 2.5-3.5% U-235.

Uranium is found as uranium oxide which when purified has a rich yellow color and is called "yellowcake". After reduction, the uranium must go through an isotope enrichment process. Even with the necessity of enrichment, it still takes only about 3 kg of natural uranium to supply the energy needs of one American for a year.

Index
 
HyperPhysics***** Nuclear R Nave
Go Back





Fissionable Isotopes

While uranium-235 is the naturally occuring fissionable isotope, there are other isotopes which can be induced to fission by neutron bombardment. Plutonium-239 is also fissionable, and both it and uranium-235 have been used to make nuclear fission bombs. Plutonium-239 can also be produced by "breeding" it from non-fissionable uranium-238. Some of the nuclear reactors at Hanford, Washington and the Savannah-River Plant (SC) are designed for the production of bomb-grade plutonium-239. The only other isotope which is known to undergo fission upon neutron bombardment is uranium-233. Thorium-232 is fissionable, so could conceivably be used as a nuclear fuel.

Nuclear fission
Index
 
HyperPhysics***** Nuclear R Nave
Go Back





History of U-235 Fission

In the 1930s, German physicists/chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman attempted to create transuranic elements by bombarding uranium with neutrons. Rather than the heavy elements they expected, they got several unidentified products. When they finally identified one of the products as Barium-141, they were reluctant to publish the finding because it was so unexpected. When they finally published the results in 1939, they came to the attention of Lise Meitner, an Austrian-born physicist who had worked with Hahn on his nuclear experiments. Upon Hitler's invasion of Austria, she had been forced to flee to Sweden where she and Otto Frisch, her nephew, continued to work on the neutron bombardment problem. She was the first to realize that Hahn's barium and other lighter products from the neutron bombardment experiments were coming from the fission of U-235. Frisch and Meitner carried out further experiments which showed that the U-235 fission yielded an enormous amount of energy, and that the fission yielded at least two neutrons per neutron absorbed in the interaction. They realized that this made possible a chain reaction with an unprecedented energy yield.

Index
 
HyperPhysics***** Nuclear R Nave
Go Back