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What is meant by splitting an atom?

Category : All, Education · by Apr 1st, 2015

What is meant by splitting an atom?

The nucleus of an atom is made of protons, neutrons and electrons. The protons and neutrons constitute the nucleus and are located at the center of the atom while electrons orbit around the nucleus. When an atom is split up, it means the nucleus breaks up from its previous state. When this occurs, the element physically changes into two atomically smaller elements. It must be noted that these splits aren’t even, meaning that you don’t get two atoms having the exact same total of protons and neutrons as the original. This also means that many neutrons and electrons are also freed.

These freed electrons and protons can trigger the atoms near them to also split, creating a chain reaction. Each of these splitting atoms releases a LOT of energy. If the chain reaction is large enough, this energy is released in the form of tremendous heat: A nuclear blast.

The question is where this energy comes from? How can so small an atom pack so much energy to be used as a power source or a nuclear weapon. To understand this, we must consider Albert Einstein’s famous equation, Energy equals mass into energy squared. If we look into a nucleus of an atom, we find that the protons and neutrons are bound together. Let us consider the protons only for now since neutrons are having no charge. These protons, having positive charge are all in very close proximity to each other. A fundamental law of nature states that like charges will repel and unlike charges will attract. However, like charges can be made attracted to each other by keeping them at close vicinity. When protons are bound close to each other, they are held together by a force called binding force or binding energy. This is a very strong fundamental force of nature called as strong interaction. Other fundamental forces include Electromagnetism, weak interactions and gravitation.

When an atom splits, by means of an alteration in the nucleus, this means that there is a split in the cluster of the protons and neutrons and two separate atoms are formed. If we consider mass of the previous nucleus and the mass of the two nucleus created after splitting, we observe that the total mass is reduced. The sum of the masses of the two nucleus is less than the previous mass of the single nucleus. So where has the mass gone? Einstein’s equation states that matter and energy can be interrelated by his famous equation. So this loss of mass converts into the square of energy and produces a large amount of energy. This splitting of an atom has got a wide variety of applications like the production of electricity, Food and agriculture, sterilization, space engines etc.

Researchers usually use radioactive elements like Uranium and Plutonium, since they are less stable and more easily broken apart. Radioactivity is a natural and spontaneous type of fission.  If these materials are pressed together by force (using explosives or lasers), and ‘activated’ by a neutron or other means, it causes a chain reaction  and each time an atom splits, the pieces collide with surrounding atoms and cause them to split, again and again until huge amounts of energy have been released.

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 Viswas Purohit, MS,PhD | Guest Author |

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