Nuclear physics

Nuclear physics

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Encyclopedia
Nuclear physics is the field of physics
Physics
Physics is a natural science that involves the study of matter and its motion through spacetime, along with related concepts such as energy and force. More broadly, it is the general analysis of nature, conducted in order to understand how the universe behaves.Physics is one of the oldest academic...

 that studies the building blocks and interactions of atomic nuclei. The most commonly known applications of nuclear physics are nuclear power
Nuclear power
Nuclear power is the use of sustained nuclear fission to generate heat and electricity. Nuclear power plants provide about 6% of the world's energy and 13–14% of the world's electricity, with the U.S., France, and Japan together accounting for about 50% of nuclear generated electricity...

 generation and nuclear weapons technology, but the research has provided application in many fields, including those in nuclear medicine
Nuclear medicine
In nuclear medicine procedures, elemental radionuclides are combined with other elements to form chemical compounds, or else combined with existing pharmaceutical compounds, to form radiopharmaceuticals. These radiopharmaceuticals, once administered to the patient, can localize to specific organs...

 and magnetic resonance imaging
Magnetic resonance imaging
Magnetic resonance imaging , nuclear magnetic resonance imaging , or magnetic resonance tomography is a medical imaging technique used in radiology to visualize detailed internal structures...

, ion implantation
Ion implantation
Ion implantation is a materials engineering process by which ions of a material are accelerated in an electrical field and impacted into another solid. This process is used to change the physical, chemical, or electrical properties of the solid...

 in materials engineering, and radiocarbon dating
Radiocarbon dating
Radiocarbon dating is a radiometric dating method that uses the naturally occurring radioisotope carbon-14 to estimate the age of carbon-bearing materials up to about 58,000 to 62,000 years. Raw, i.e. uncalibrated, radiocarbon ages are usually reported in radiocarbon years "Before Present" ,...

 in geology
Geology
Geology is the science comprising the study of solid Earth, the rocks of which it is composed, and the processes by which it evolves. Geology gives insight into the history of the Earth, as it provides the primary evidence for plate tectonics, the evolutionary history of life, and past climates...

 and archaeology
Archaeology
Archaeology, or archeology , is the study of human society, primarily through the recovery and analysis of the material culture and environmental data that they have left behind, which includes artifacts, architecture, biofacts and cultural landscapes...

.

The field of particle physics
Particle physics
Particle physics is a branch of physics that studies the existence and interactions of particles that are the constituents of what is usually referred to as matter or radiation. In current understanding, particles are excitations of quantum fields and interact following their dynamics...

 evolved out of nuclear physics and is typically taught in close association with nuclear physics.

History


The history of nuclear physics as a discipline distinct from atomic physics
Atomic physics
Atomic physics is the field of physics that studies atoms as an isolated system of electrons and an atomic nucleus. It is primarily concerned with the arrangement of electrons around the nucleus and...

 starts with the discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel
Henri Becquerel
Antoine Henri Becquerel was a French physicist, Nobel laureate, and the discoverer of radioactivity along with Marie Curie and Pierre Curie, for which all three won the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics.-Early life:...

 in 1896, while investigating phosphorescence
Phosphorescence
Phosphorescence is a specific type of photoluminescence related to fluorescence. Unlike fluorescence, a phosphorescent material does not immediately re-emit the radiation it absorbs. The slower time scales of the re-emission are associated with "forbidden" energy state transitions in quantum...

 in uranium
Uranium
Uranium is a silvery-white metallic chemical element in the actinide series of the periodic table, with atomic number 92. It is assigned the chemical symbol U. A uranium atom has 92 protons and 92 electrons, of which 6 are valence electrons...

 salts. The discovery of the electron
Electron
The electron is a subatomic particle with a negative elementary electric charge. It has no known components or substructure; in other words, it is generally thought to be an elementary particle. An electron has a mass that is approximately 1/1836 that of the proton...

 by J. J. Thomson
J. J. Thomson
Sir Joseph John "J. J." Thomson, OM, FRS was a British physicist and Nobel laureate. He is credited for the discovery of the electron and of isotopes, and the invention of the mass spectrometer...

 a year later was an indication that the atom had internal structure. At the turn of the 20th century the accepted model of the atom was J. J. Thomson's plum pudding model
Plum pudding model
The plum pudding model of the atom by J. J. Thomson, who discovered the electron in 1897, was proposed in 1904 before the discovery of the atomic nucleus. In this model, the atom is composed of electrons The plum pudding model of the atom by J. J. Thomson, who discovered the electron in 1897, was...

 in which the atom was a large positively charged ball with small negatively charged electrons embedded inside of it. By the turn of the century physicists had also discovered three types of radiation
Radiation
In physics, radiation is a process in which energetic particles or energetic waves travel through a medium or space. There are two distinct types of radiation; ionizing and non-ionizing...

 emanating from atoms, which they named alpha
Alpha decay
Alpha decay is a type of radioactive decay in which an atomic nucleus emits an alpha particle and thereby transforms into an atom with a mass number 4 less and atomic number 2 less...

, beta
Beta decay
In nuclear physics, beta decay is a type of radioactive decay in which a beta particle is emitted from an atom. There are two types of beta decay: beta minus and beta plus. In the case of beta decay that produces an electron emission, it is referred to as beta minus , while in the case of a...

, and gamma radiation. Experiments in 1911 by Lise Meitner
Lise Meitner
Lise Meitner FRS was an Austrian-born, later Swedish, physicist who worked on radioactivity and nuclear physics. Meitner was part of the team that discovered nuclear fission, an achievement for which her colleague Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize...

 and Otto Hahn
Otto Hahn
Otto Hahn FRS was a German chemist and Nobel laureate, a pioneer in the fields of radioactivity and radiochemistry. He is regarded as "the father of nuclear chemistry". Hahn was a courageous opposer of Jewish persecution by the Nazis and after World War II he became a passionate campaigner...

, and by James Chadwick
James Chadwick
Sir James Chadwick CH FRS was an English Nobel laureate in physics awarded for his discovery of the neutron....

 in 1914 discovered that the beta decay spectrum
Spectrum
A spectrum is a condition that is not limited to a specific set of values but can vary infinitely within a continuum. The word saw its first scientific use within the field of optics to describe the rainbow of colors in visible light when separated using a prism; it has since been applied by...

 was continuous rather than discrete. That is, electrons were ejected from the atom with a range of energies, rather than the discrete amounts of energies that were observed in gamma and alpha decays. This was a problem for nuclear physics at the time, because it indicated that energy was not conserved
Conservation of energy
The nineteenth century law of conservation of energy is a law of physics. It states that the total amount of energy in an isolated system remains constant over time. The total energy is said to be conserved over time...

 in these decays.

In 1905, Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein was a German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of general relativity, effecting a revolution in physics. For this achievement, Einstein is often regarded as the father of modern physics and one of the most prolific intellects in human history...

 formulated the idea of mass–energy equivalence. While the work on radioactivity by Becquerel
Henri Becquerel
Antoine Henri Becquerel was a French physicist, Nobel laureate, and the discoverer of radioactivity along with Marie Curie and Pierre Curie, for which all three won the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics.-Early life:...

, Pierre and Marie Curie predates this, an explanation of the source of the energy of radioactivity would have to wait for the discovery that the nucleus itself was composed of smaller constituents, the nucleon
Nucleon
In physics, a nucleon is a collective name for two particles: the neutron and the proton. These are the two constituents of the atomic nucleus. Until the 1960s, the nucleons were thought to be elementary particles...

s.

Rutherford's team discovers the nucleus


In 1907 Ernest Rutherford
Ernest Rutherford
Ernest Rutherford, 1st Baron Rutherford of Nelson OM, FRS was a New Zealand-born British chemist and physicist who became known as the father of nuclear physics...

 published "Radiation of the α Particle from Radium in passing through Matter." Geiger expanded on this work in a communication to the Royal Society with experiments he and Rutherford had done passing α particles through air, aluminum foil and gold leaf. More work was published in 1909 by Geiger and Marsden
Ernest Marsden
Sir Ernest Marsden was an English-New Zealand physicist. He was born in East Lancashire, living in Rishton and educated at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Blackburn, where an inter-house trophy rewarding academic excellence bears his name.He met Ernest Rutherford at the University of Manchester...

 and further greatly expanded work was published in 1910 by Geiger, In 1911-2 Rutherford went before the Royal Society to explain the experiments and propound the new theory of the atomic nucleus as we now understand it.

The key experiment behind this announcement happened in 1910 at the University of Manchester
University of Manchester
The University of Manchester is a public research university located in Manchester, United Kingdom. It is a "red brick" university and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive British universities and the N8 Group...

, as Ernest Rutherford's team performed a remarkable experiment
Geiger-Marsden experiment
The Geiger–Marsden experiment was an experiment to probe the structure of the atom performed by Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden in 1909, under the direction of Ernest Rutherford at the Physical Laboratories of the University of Manchester...

 in which Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden
Ernest Marsden
Sir Ernest Marsden was an English-New Zealand physicist. He was born in East Lancashire, living in Rishton and educated at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Blackburn, where an inter-house trophy rewarding academic excellence bears his name.He met Ernest Rutherford at the University of Manchester...

 under his supervision fired alpha particles (helium nuclei) at a thin film of gold
Gold
Gold is a chemical element with the symbol Au and an atomic number of 79. Gold is a dense, soft, shiny, malleable and ductile metal. Pure gold has a bright yellow color and luster traditionally considered attractive, which it maintains without oxidizing in air or water. Chemically, gold is a...

 foil. The plum pudding model
Plum pudding model
The plum pudding model of the atom by J. J. Thomson, who discovered the electron in 1897, was proposed in 1904 before the discovery of the atomic nucleus. In this model, the atom is composed of electrons The plum pudding model of the atom by J. J. Thomson, who discovered the electron in 1897, was...

 predicted that the alpha particles should come out of the foil with their trajectories being at most slightly bent. Rutherford had the idea to instruct his team to look for something that shocked him to actually observe: a few particles were scattered through large angles, even completely backwards, in some cases. He likened it to firing a bullet at tissue paper and having it bounce off. The discovery, beginning with Rutherford's analysis of the data in 1911, eventually led to the Rutherford model of the atom, in which the atom has a very small, very dense nucleus containing most of its mass, and consisting of heavy positively charged particles with embedded electrons in order to balance out the charge (since the neutron was unknown). As an example, in this model (which is not the modern one) nitrogen-14 consisted of a nucleus with 14 protons and 7 electrons (21 total particles), and the nucleus was surrounded by 7 more orbiting electrons.

The Rutherford model worked quite well until studies of nuclear spin
Spin (physics)
In quantum mechanics and particle physics, spin is a fundamental characteristic property of elementary particles, composite particles , and atomic nuclei.It is worth noting that the intrinsic property of subatomic particles called spin and discussed in this article, is related in some small ways,...

 were carried out by Franco Rasetti
Franco Rasetti
Franco Dino Rasetti was an Italian scientist. Together with Enrico Fermi, discovered key processes leading to nuclear fission. Rasetti refused to work on the Manhattan Project, however, on moral grounds...

 at the California Institute of Technology
California Institute of Technology
The California Institute of Technology is a private research university located in Pasadena, California, United States. Caltech has six academic divisions with strong emphases on science and engineering...

 in 1929. By 1925 it was known that protons and electrons had a spin of 1/2, and in the Rutherford model of nitrogen-14, 20 of the total 21 nuclear particles should have paired up to cancel each other's spin, and the final odd particle should have left the nucleus with a net spin of 1/2. Rasetti discovered, however, that nitrogen-14 has a spin of 1.

James Chadwick discovers the neutron


In 1932 Chadwick realized that radiation that had been observed by Walther Bothe
Walther Bothe
Walther Wilhelm Georg Bothe was a German nuclear physicist, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1954 with Max Born....

, Herbert L. Becker
Herbert L. Becker
Herbert Lawrence Becker is a magician and the inventor and patent/copyright holder for BOIP...

, Irène
Irène Joliot-Curie
Irène Joliot-Curie was a French scientist, the daughter of Marie Skłodowska-Curie and Pierre Curie and the wife of Frédéric Joliot-Curie. Jointly with her husband, Joliot-Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1935 for their discovery of artificial radioactivity. This made the Curies...

 and Frédéric Joliot-Curie
Frédéric Joliot-Curie
Jean Frédéric Joliot-Curie , born Jean Frédéric Joliot, was a French physicist and Nobel laureate.-Early years:...

 was actually due to a neutral particle of about the same mass as the proton, that he called the neutron
Neutron
The neutron is a subatomic hadron particle which has the symbol or , no net electric charge and a mass slightly larger than that of a proton. With the exception of hydrogen, nuclei of atoms consist of protons and neutrons, which are therefore collectively referred to as nucleons. The number of...

 (following a suggestion about the need for such a particle, by Rutherford). In the same year Dmitri Ivanenko
Dmitri Ivanenko
Dmitri Ivanenko , Professor of Moscow State University , made a great contribution to the physical science of the twentieth century, especially to nuclear physics, field theory , and gravitation theory.His outstanding achievements include:* the Fock-Ivanenko coefficients of parallel...

 suggested that neutrons were in fact spin 1/2 particles and that the nucleus contained neutrons to explain the mass not due to protons, and that there were no electrons in the nucleus—only protons and neutrons. The neutron spin immediately solved the problem of the spin of nitrogen-14, as the one unpaired proton and one unpaired neutron in this model, each contribute a spin of 1/2 in the same direction, for a final total spin of 1.

With the discovery of the neutron, scientists at last could calculate what fraction of binding energy
Binding energy
Binding energy is the mechanical energy required to disassemble a whole into separate parts. A bound system typically has a lower potential energy than its constituent parts; this is what keeps the system together—often this means that energy is released upon the creation of a bound state...

 each nucleus had, from comparing the nuclear mass with that of the protons and neutrons which composed it. Differences between nuclear masses were calculated in this way and—when nuclear reactions were measured—were found to agree with Einstein's calculation of the equivalence of mass and energy to high accuracy (within 1 percent as of in 1934).

Proca's equations of the massive vector boson field


Alexandru Proca
Alexandru Proca
Alexandru Proca was a Romanian physicist who studied and worked in France. He developed the vector meson theory of nuclear forces and the relativistic quantum field equations that bear his name for the massive, vector spin-1 mesons...

 was the first to develop and report the massive vector boson
Boson
In particle physics, bosons are subatomic particles that obey Bose–Einstein statistics. Several bosons can occupy the same quantum state. The word boson derives from the name of Satyendra Nath Bose....

 field equation
Field equation
A field equation is an equation in a physical theory that describes how a fundamental force interacts with matter...

s and a theory of the meson
Meson
In particle physics, mesons are subatomic particles composed of one quark and one antiquark, bound together by the strong interaction. Because mesons are composed of sub-particles, they have a physical size, with a radius roughly one femtometer: 10−15 m, which is about the size of a proton...

ic field of nuclear force
Nuclear force
The nuclear force is the force between two or more nucleons. It is responsible for binding of protons and neutrons into atomic nuclei. The energy released causes the masses of nuclei to be less than the total mass of the protons and neutrons which form them...

s. Proca's equations were known to Wolfgang Pauli
Wolfgang Pauli
Wolfgang Ernst Pauli was an Austrian theoretical physicist and one of the pioneers of quantum physics. In 1945, after being nominated by Albert Einstein, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his "decisive contribution through his discovery of a new law of Nature, the exclusion principle or...

 who mentioned the equations in his Nobel address, and they were also known to Yukawa, Wentzel,Taketani, Sakata,Kemmer,Heitler and Fröhlich who appreciated the content of Proca's equations for developing a theory of the atomic nuclei in Nuclear Physics.

Yukawa's meson postulated to bind nuclei


In 1935 Hideki Yukawa
Hideki Yukawa
né , was a Japanese theoretical physicist and the first Japanese Nobel laureate.-Biography:Yukawa was born in Tokyo and grew up in Kyoto. In 1929, after receiving his degree from Kyoto Imperial University, he stayed on as a lecturer for four years. After graduation, he was interested in...

 proposed the first significant theory of the strong force to explain how the nucleus holds together. In the Yukawa interaction
Yukawa interaction
In particle physics, Yukawa's interaction, named after Hideki Yukawa, is an interaction between a scalar field \phi and a Dirac field \Psi of the typeV \approx g\bar\Psi \phi \Psi or g \bar \Psi \gamma^5 \phi \Psi ....

 a virtual particle
Virtual particle
In physics, a virtual particle is a particle that exists for a limited time and space. The energy and momentum of a virtual particle are uncertain according to the uncertainty principle...

, later called a meson
Meson
In particle physics, mesons are subatomic particles composed of one quark and one antiquark, bound together by the strong interaction. Because mesons are composed of sub-particles, they have a physical size, with a radius roughly one femtometer: 10−15 m, which is about the size of a proton...

, mediated a force between all nucleons, including protons and neutrons. This force explained why nuclei did not disintegrate under the influence of proton repulsion, and it also gave an explanation of why the attractive strong force had a more limited range than the electromagnetic repulsion between protons. Later, the discovery of the pi meson showed it to have the properties of Yukawa's particle.

With Yukawa's papers, the modern model of the atom was complete. The center of the atom contains a tight ball of neutrons and protons, which is held together by the strong nuclear force, unless it is too large. Unstable nuclei may undergo alpha decay, in which they emit an energetic helium nucleus, or beta decay, in which they eject an electron (or positron
Positron
The positron or antielectron is the antiparticle or the antimatter counterpart of the electron. The positron has an electric charge of +1e, a spin of ½, and has the same mass as an electron...

). After one of these decays the resultant nucleus may be left in an excited state, and in this case it decays to its ground state by emitting high energy photons (gamma decay).

The study of the strong and weak nuclear forces (the latter explained by Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi was an Italian-born, naturalized American physicist particularly known for his work on the development of the first nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile-1, and for his contributions to the development of quantum theory, nuclear and particle physics, and statistical mechanics...

 via Fermi's interaction
Fermi's interaction
In particle physics, Fermi's interaction also known as Fermi coupling, is an old explanation of the weak force, proposed by Enrico Fermi, in which four fermions directly interact with one another at one vertex...

 in 1934) led physicists to collide nuclei and electrons at ever higher energies. This research became the science of particle physics
Particle physics
Particle physics is a branch of physics that studies the existence and interactions of particles that are the constituents of what is usually referred to as matter or radiation. In current understanding, particles are excitations of quantum fields and interact following their dynamics...

, the crown jewel of which is the standard model of particle physics
Standard Model
The Standard Model of particle physics is a theory concerning the electromagnetic, weak, and strong nuclear interactions, which mediate the dynamics of the known subatomic particles. Developed throughout the mid to late 20th century, the current formulation was finalized in the mid 1970s upon...

 which describes the strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces.

Modern nuclear physics



A heavy nucleus can contain hundreds of nucleon
Nucleon
In physics, a nucleon is a collective name for two particles: the neutron and the proton. These are the two constituents of the atomic nucleus. Until the 1960s, the nucleons were thought to be elementary particles...

s which means that with some approximation it can be treated as a classical system, rather than a quantum-mechanical
Quantum mechanics
Quantum mechanics, also known as quantum physics or quantum theory, is a branch of physics providing a mathematical description of much of the dual particle-like and wave-like behavior and interactions of energy and matter. It departs from classical mechanics primarily at the atomic and subatomic...

 one. In the resulting liquid-drop model, the nucleus has an energy which arises partly from surface tension
Surface tension
Surface tension is a property of the surface of a liquid that allows it to resist an external force. It is revealed, for example, in floating of some objects on the surface of water, even though they are denser than water, and in the ability of some insects to run on the water surface...

 and partly from electrical repulsion of the protons. The liquid-drop model is able to reproduce many features of nuclei, including the general trend of binding energy
Binding energy
Binding energy is the mechanical energy required to disassemble a whole into separate parts. A bound system typically has a lower potential energy than its constituent parts; this is what keeps the system together—often this means that energy is released upon the creation of a bound state...

 with respect to mass number, as well as the phenomenon of nuclear fission
Nuclear fission
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts , often producing free neutrons and photons , and releasing a tremendous amount of energy...

.

Superimposed on this classical picture, however, are quantum-mechanical effects, which can be described using the nuclear shell model
Shell model
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, the nuclear shell model is a model of the atomic nucleus which uses the Pauli exclusion principle to describe the structure of the nucleus in terms of energy levels. The first shell model was proposed by Dmitry Ivanenko in 1932...

, developed in large part by Maria Goeppert-Mayer. Nuclei with certain numbers of neutrons and protons (the magic numbers
Magic number (physics)
In nuclear physics, a magic number is a number of nucleons such that they are arranged into complete shells within the atomic nucleus...

 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, 126, ...) are particularly stable, because their shells are filled.

Other more complicated models for the nucleus have also been proposed, such as the interacting boson model
Interacting boson model
The interacting boson model is a model in nuclear physics in whichnucleons pair up, essentiallyacting as a single particle with boson properties, withintegral spin of 0, 2 or 4....

, in which pairs of neutrons and protons interact as bosons, analogously to Cooper pair
Cooper pair
In condensed matter physics, a Cooper pair or BCS pair is two electrons that are bound together at low temperatures in a certain manner first described in 1956 by American physicist Leon Cooper...

s of electrons.

Much of current research in nuclear physics relates to the study of nuclei under extreme conditions such as high spin
Spin (physics)
In quantum mechanics and particle physics, spin is a fundamental characteristic property of elementary particles, composite particles , and atomic nuclei.It is worth noting that the intrinsic property of subatomic particles called spin and discussed in this article, is related in some small ways,...

 and excitation energy. Nuclei may also have extreme shapes (similar to that of Rugby balls) or extreme neutron-to-proton ratios. Experimenters can create such nuclei using artificially induced fusion or nucleon transfer reactions, employing ion beams from an accelerator
Particle accelerator
A particle accelerator is a device that uses electromagnetic fields to propel charged particles to high speeds and to contain them in well-defined beams. An ordinary CRT television set is a simple form of accelerator. There are two basic types: electrostatic and oscillating field accelerators.In...

.
Beams with even higher energies can be used to create nuclei at very high temperatures, and there are signs that these experiments have produced a phase transition
Phase transition
A phase transition is the transformation of a thermodynamic system from one phase or state of matter to another.A phase of a thermodynamic system and the states of matter have uniform physical properties....

 from normal nuclear matter to a new state, the quark-gluon plasma
Quark-gluon plasma
A quark–gluon plasma or quark soup is a phase of quantum chromodynamics which exists at extremely high temperature and/or density. This phase consists of asymptotically free quarks and gluons, which are several of the basic building blocks of matter...

, in which the quark
Quark
A quark is an elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter. Quarks combine to form composite particles called hadrons, the most stable of which are protons and neutrons, the components of atomic nuclei. Due to a phenomenon known as color confinement, quarks are never directly...

s mingle with one another, rather than being segregated in triplets as they are in neutrons and protons.

Nuclear decay



Eighty elements have at least one stable isotope
Stable isotope
Stable isotopes are chemical isotopes that may or may not be radioactive, but if radioactive, have half-lives too long to be measured.Only 90 nuclides from the first 40 elements are energetically stable to any kind of decay save proton decay, in theory...

 never observed to decay, amounting to a total of about 255 stable isotopes. However, thousands of isotope
Isotope
Isotopes are variants of atoms of a particular chemical element, which have differing numbers of neutrons. Atoms of a particular element by definition must contain the same number of protons but may have a distinct number of neutrons which differs from atom to atom, without changing the designation...

s have been characterized that are unstable. These radioisotopes decay over time scales ranging from fractions of a second to weeks, years, billions of years, or even trillions of years.

The stability of a nucleus is highest when it falls into a certain range or balance of composition of neutrons and protons; too few or too many neutrons may cause it to decay. For example, in beta decay
Beta decay
In nuclear physics, beta decay is a type of radioactive decay in which a beta particle is emitted from an atom. There are two types of beta decay: beta minus and beta plus. In the case of beta decay that produces an electron emission, it is referred to as beta minus , while in the case of a...

 a nitrogen
Nitrogen
Nitrogen is a chemical element that has the symbol N, atomic number of 7 and atomic mass 14.00674 u. Elemental nitrogen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and mostly inert diatomic gas at standard conditions, constituting 78.08% by volume of Earth's atmosphere...

-16 atom (7 protons, 9 neutrons) is converted to an oxygen
Oxygen
Oxygen is the element with atomic number 8 and represented by the symbol O. Its name derives from the Greek roots ὀξύς and -γενής , because at the time of naming, it was mistakenly thought that all acids required oxygen in their composition...

-16 atom (8 protons, 8 neutrons) within a few seconds of being created. In this decay a neutron in the nitrogen nucleus is converted into a proton and an electron and an antineutrino by the weak nuclear force. The element is transmuted to another element in by acquiring the created proton.

In alpha decay
Alpha decay
Alpha decay is a type of radioactive decay in which an atomic nucleus emits an alpha particle and thereby transforms into an atom with a mass number 4 less and atomic number 2 less...

 the radioactive element decays by emitting a helium nucleus (2 protons and 2 neutrons), giving another element, plus helium-4. In many cases this process continues through several steps of this kind, including other types of decays, until a stable element is formed.

In gamma decay, a nucleus decays from an excited state into a lower energy state, by emitting a gamma ray
Gamma ray
Gamma radiation, also known as gamma rays or hyphenated as gamma-rays and denoted as γ, is electromagnetic radiation of high frequency . Gamma rays are usually naturally produced on Earth by decay of high energy states in atomic nuclei...

. The element is not changed to another element in the process (no nuclear transmutation
Nuclear transmutation
Nuclear transmutation is the conversion of one chemical element or isotope into another. In other words, atoms of one element can be changed into atoms of other element by 'transmutation'...

 is involved).

Other more exotic decays are possible (see the main article). For example, in internal conversion
Internal conversion
Internal conversion is a radioactive decay process where an excited nucleus interacts with an electron in one of the lower atomic orbitals, causing the electron to be emitted from the atom. Thus, in an internal conversion process, a high-energy electron is emitted from the radioactive atom, but...

 decay, the energy from an excited nucleus may be used to eject one of the inner orbital electrons from the atom, in a process which produces high speed electrons, but is not beta decay
Beta decay
In nuclear physics, beta decay is a type of radioactive decay in which a beta particle is emitted from an atom. There are two types of beta decay: beta minus and beta plus. In the case of beta decay that produces an electron emission, it is referred to as beta minus , while in the case of a...

, and (unlike beta decay) does not transmute one element to another.

Nuclear fusion


In nuclear fusion
Nuclear fusion
Nuclear fusion is the process by which two or more atomic nuclei join together, or "fuse", to form a single heavier nucleus. This is usually accompanied by the release or absorption of large quantities of energy...

, two low mass nuclei come into very close contact with each other, so that the strong force fuses them. It requires a large amount of energy to overcome the repulsion between the nuclei for the strong or nuclear force
Nuclear force
The nuclear force is the force between two or more nucleons. It is responsible for binding of protons and neutrons into atomic nuclei. The energy released causes the masses of nuclei to be less than the total mass of the protons and neutrons which form them...

s to produce this effect, therefore nuclear fusion can only take place at very high temperatures or high pressures. Once the process succeeds, a very large amount of energy is released and the combined nucleus assumes a lower energy level. The binding energy per nucleon increases with mass number up until nickel
Nickel
Nickel is a chemical element with the chemical symbol Ni and atomic number 28. It is a silvery-white lustrous metal with a slight golden tinge. Nickel belongs to the transition metals and is hard and ductile...

-62. Star
Star
A star is a massive, luminous sphere of plasma held together by gravity. At the end of its lifetime, a star can also contain a proportion of degenerate matter. The nearest star to Earth is the Sun, which is the source of most of the energy on Earth...

s like the Sun are powered by the fusion of four protons into a helium nucleus, two positron
Positron
The positron or antielectron is the antiparticle or the antimatter counterpart of the electron. The positron has an electric charge of +1e, a spin of ½, and has the same mass as an electron...

s, and two neutrinos. The uncontrolled fusion of hydrogen into helium is known as thermonuclear runaway. A frontier in current research at various institutions, for example the Joint European Torus
Joint European Torus
JET, the Joint European Torus, is the largest magnetic confinement plasma physics experiment worldwide currently in operation. Its main purpose is to open the way to future nuclear fusion experimental tokamak reactors such as ITER and :DEMO....

 (JET) and ITER
ITER
ITER is an international nuclear fusion research and engineering project, which is currently building the world's largest and most advanced experimental tokamak nuclear fusion reactor at Cadarache in the south of France...

, is the development of an economically viable method of using energy from a controlled fusion reaction.
Natural nuclear fusion is the origin of the light and energy produced by the core of all stars including our own sun
Sun
The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is almost perfectly spherical and consists of hot plasma interwoven with magnetic fields...

.

Nuclear fission


Nuclear fission
Nuclear fission
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts , often producing free neutrons and photons , and releasing a tremendous amount of energy...

 is the reverse process of fusion. For nuclei heavier than nickel-62 the binding energy per nucleon decreases with the mass number. It is therefore possible for energy to be released if a heavy nucleus breaks apart into two lighter ones.

The process of alpha decay
Alpha decay
Alpha decay is a type of radioactive decay in which an atomic nucleus emits an alpha particle and thereby transforms into an atom with a mass number 4 less and atomic number 2 less...

 is in essence a special type of spontaneous nuclear fission
Nuclear fission
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts , often producing free neutrons and photons , and releasing a tremendous amount of energy...

. This process produces a highly asymmetrical fission because the four particles which make up the alpha particle are especially tightly bound to each other, making production of this nucleus in fission particularly likely.

For certain of the heaviest nuclei which produce neutrons on fission, and which also easily absorb neutrons to initiate fission, a self-igniting type of neutron-initiated fission can be obtained, in a so-called chain reaction
Chain reaction
A chain reaction is a sequence of reactions where a reactive product or by-product causes additional reactions to take place. In a chain reaction, positive feedback leads to a self-amplifying chain of events....

. Chain reactions were known in chemistry before physics, and in fact many familiar processes like fires and chemical explosions are chemical chain reactions. The fission or "nuclear" chain-reaction
Nuclear chain reaction
A nuclear chain reaction occurs when one nuclear reaction causes an average of one or more nuclear reactions, thus leading to a self-propagating number of these reactions. The specific nuclear reaction may be the fission of heavy isotopes or the fusion of light isotopes...

, using fission-produced neutrons, is the source of energy for nuclear power
Nuclear power
Nuclear power is the use of sustained nuclear fission to generate heat and electricity. Nuclear power plants provide about 6% of the world's energy and 13–14% of the world's electricity, with the U.S., France, and Japan together accounting for about 50% of nuclear generated electricity...

 plants and fission type nuclear bombs, such as those detonated by the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 in Hiroshima
Hiroshima
is the capital of Hiroshima Prefecture, and the largest city in the Chūgoku region of western Honshu, the largest island of Japan. It became best known as the first city in history to be destroyed by a nuclear weapon when the United States Army Air Forces dropped an atomic bomb on it at 8:15 A.M...

 and Nagasaki, Japan, at the end of World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

. Heavy nuclei such as uranium
Uranium
Uranium is a silvery-white metallic chemical element in the actinide series of the periodic table, with atomic number 92. It is assigned the chemical symbol U. A uranium atom has 92 protons and 92 electrons, of which 6 are valence electrons...

 and thorium
Thorium
Thorium is a natural radioactive chemical element with the symbol Th and atomic number 90. It was discovered in 1828 and named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder....

 may undergo spontaneous fission
Spontaneous fission
Spontaneous fission is a form of radioactive decay characteristic of very heavy isotopes. Because the nuclear binding energy reaches a maximum at a nuclear mass greater than about 60 atomic mass units , spontaneous breakdown into smaller nuclei and single particles becomes possible at heavier masses...

, but they are much more likely to undergo decay by alpha decay.

For a neutron-initiated chain-reaction to occur, there must be a critical mass
Critical mass
A critical mass is the smallest amount of fissile material needed for a sustained nuclear chain reaction. The critical mass of a fissionable material depends upon its nuclear properties A critical mass is the smallest amount of fissile material needed for a sustained nuclear chain reaction. The...

 of the element present in a certain space under certain conditions (these conditions slow and conserve neutrons for the reactions). In two regions of Oklo
Oklo
Oklo is a region near the town of Franceville, in the Haut-Ogooué province of the Central African state of Gabon. Several natural nuclear fission reactors were discovered in the uranium mines in the region in 1972.-History:...

, Gabon, Africa, natural nuclear fission reactor
Natural nuclear fission reactor
A natural nuclear fission reactor is a uranium deposit where analysis of isotope ratios has shown that self-sustaining nuclear chain reactions have occurred. The existence of this phenomenon was discovered in 1972 at Oklo in Gabon, Africa, by French physicist Francis Perrin. The conditions under...

s were active over 1.5 billion years ago. Measurements of natural neutrino emission have demonstrated that around half of the heat emanating from the Earth's core results from radioactive decay. However, it is not known if any of this results from fission chain-reactions.

Production of heavy elements



According to the theory, as the Universe cooled after the big bang
Big Bang
The Big Bang theory is the prevailing cosmological model that explains the early development of the Universe. According to the Big Bang theory, the Universe was once in an extremely hot and dense state which expanded rapidly. This rapid expansion caused the young Universe to cool and resulted in...

 it eventually became possible for common subatomic particles as we know them (neutrons, protons and electrons) to exist. The most common particles created in the big bang which are still easily observable to us today were protons and electrons (in equal numbers). The protons would eventually form hydrogen atoms. Almost all the neutrons created in the Big Bang were absorbed into helium-4
Helium-4
Helium-4 is a non-radioactive isotope of helium. It is by far the most abundant of the two naturally occurring isotopes of helium, making up about 99.99986% of the helium on earth. Its nucleus is the same as an alpha particle, consisting of two protons and two neutrons. Alpha decay of heavy...

 in the first three minutes after the Big Bang, and this helium accounts for most of the helium in the universe today (see Big Bang nucleosynthesis
Big Bang nucleosynthesis
In physical cosmology, Big Bang nucleosynthesis refers to the production of nuclei other than those of H-1 during the early phases of the universe...

).

Some fraction of elements beyond helium were created in the Big Bang, as the protons and neutrons collided with each other (lithium, beryllium, and perhaps some boron), but all of the "heavier elements" (heavier than carbon, element number 6) that we see today, were created inside of stars during a series of fusion stages, such as the proton-proton chain, the CNO cycle
CNO cycle
The CNO cycle is one of two sets of fusion reactions by which stars convert hydrogen to helium, the other being the proton–proton chain. Unlike the proton–proton chain reaction, the CNO cycle is a catalytic cycle. Theoretical models show that the CNO cycle is the dominant source of energy in stars...

 and the triple-alpha process
Triple-alpha process
The triple alpha process is a set of nuclear fusion reactions by which three helium-4 nuclei are transformed into carbon.Older stars start to accumulate helium produced by the proton–proton chain reaction and the carbon–nitrogen–oxygen cycle in their cores...

. Progressively heavier elements are created during the evolution
Stellar evolution
Stellar evolution is the process by which a star undergoes a sequence of radical changes during its lifetime. Depending on the mass of the star, this lifetime ranges from only a few million years to trillions of years .Stellar evolution is not studied by observing the life of a single...

 of a star.

Since the binding energy per nucleon peaks around iron, energy is only released in fusion processes occurring below this point. Since the creation of heavier nuclei by fusion costs energy, nature resorts to the process of neutron capture. Neutrons (due to their lack of charge) are readily absorbed by a nucleus. The heavy elements are created by either a slow neutron capture process (the so-called s process) or by the rapid, or r process. The s process occurs in thermally pulsing stars (called AGB, or asymptotic giant branch stars) and takes hundreds to thousands of years to reach the heaviest elements of lead and bismuth. The r process is thought to occur in supernova explosions because the conditions of high temperature, high neutron flux and ejected matter are present. These stellar conditions make the successive neutron captures very fast, involving very neutron-rich species which then beta-decay to heavier elements, especially at the so-called waiting points that correspond to more stable nuclides with closed neutron shells (magic numbers).

See also


  • Isomeric shift
    Isomeric shift
    The isomeric shift is the shift on atomic spectral lines and gamma spectral lines, which occurs as a consequence of replacement of one nuclear isomer by another. It is usually called isomeric shift on atomic spectral lines and Mössbauer isomeric shift respectively...

  • Neutron-degenerate matter
  • Nuclear matter
    Nuclear matter
    Nuclear matter is an idealized system of interacting nucleons that exists in several phases that as yet are not fully established...

  • Nuclear model
  • Nuclear reactor physics
    Nuclear reactor physics
    Nuclear reactor physics is the branch of science that deals with the study and application of chain reaction to induce controlled rate of fission for energy in reactors....

  • QCD matter
    QCD matter
    Quark matter or QCD matter refers to any of a number of theorized phases of matter whose degrees of freedom include quarks and gluons. These theoretical phases would occur at extremely high temperatures and densities, billions of times higher than can be produced in equilibrium in laboratories...


External links