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 Answer – What is the difference between Fusion and Fission?

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From KT

“I am taking some classes and I am having a problem understanding the difference between nuclear fusion and nuclear fision.  Can you please help clear this up for me?  Thank you.”

 Hello “KT”,

I assume by “taking some classes” and by the question you posed that your taking an introductory science class and would like a basic understanding of the difference between nuclear Fusion and Fission. Here we go…

Atoms are groups of particles which can behave themselves as a group. They have a core composed of Neutrons and Protons and are surrounded by electrons. The cores are generally positively charged as a result of the positive charge of protons, and the neutral charge of neutrons. The electrons are negatively charged and attracted to the nucleus. As long as these balances occur that the atoms are quite stable.

NOTE: I used two fake atoms!!! I didn’t want to create a massive chart with real atoms.

 Instability!!!

Instability may occur as a result of scientists poking about or natural reasons. In a natural event an atom can loose one or more of it’s particles due to the Weak Nuclear Effect which allows for pesky little particles to run away from the nucleus and leave it in an unstable configuration! In nature, systems, such as an atom, wish to remain in a state of rest or as close as possible. They will do what ever they can do be in this rest. When they are unstable it is generally due to an imbalance of forces. Below I will go into this in detail, but here is the 25 cent answer: Once unstable the atoms tear themselves apart into small, but more stable, atoms and release the surplus energy. This is Nuclear Fission. When smaller atoms are combined to create a larger atom, they release their surplus energy and this is called Nuclear Fusion.

 Nuclear Fission – More Detail!

Ok, so you want more detail… let’s create a pretend atom. I do this because I don’t have time today to build a 3D model with over 100 neutrons and protons!!! the models you see now only have a few neutrons (green balls) and protons (red balls). We will call our element Imaginatium 9. It has 4 protons and 5 neutrons, so 4+5=9. That is why it is called Imainatium 9. Notice that there is one electron more than there are protons!!! This means this atom is an isotope of some more stable version of Imaginatium, perhaps Imagination 8? Anyhow, Imainatium 9 is very negatively charged having this spare electron to share. This extra electron is causing havoc with the positively charged nucleus. Given time this unstable atom would probably loose that electron, but our scientists have other plans.

Imaginatium 9 - Pretend Atom

Imaginatium 9 - Pretend Atom

Here we see a slow speed neutron coming from some pesky scientists. It will possibly be captured by the nucleus of our pretend atom and absorbed! The force holding the nucleus together is the strong nuclear force. This holds protons and neutrons together. The distance require for a proton and an electron to keep in harmony is very tiny and easily thrown off.

Imaginatium 9 - Pretend Atom

Imaginatium 9 - Pretend Atom

With the new neutron we now have the VERY unstable isotope Imaginatium 10! The extra neutron is neutrally charged, electrically that is, but it interferes with the protons. Just as protons and electrons need to maintain an equilibrium of sorts between their electrical charges, neutrons and protons need to maintain an equilibrium between themselves using the strong nuclear force. This additional neutron has thrown this balance off and the atom is having real problems!

Imaginatium 10 - Pretend Atom

Imaginatium 10 - Pretend Atom

As you can see the Imaginatium 10 cannot hope to hold together and is slowly coming apart. In reality this occurs nearly instantly. Many think of an atom as being split, but it actually ungulates apart. This atom is undergoing nuclear fission!!! It is becoming two or more pieces!!!

Fission!

Fission!

After the split the nucleus forms into two more stable atoms of Notmuchleftium 4. Sorry about the funny names. Note that each Notmuchleftium 4 has the same number of protons and electrons and the same number of neutrons and protons. These two atoms are VERY stable. The extra energy is released as radiation. The two extra neutrons will fly away with some of that energy in the form of kinetic energy. These little bit are sometimes called fission fragments. They may be captured by other atoms and start a chain reaction or just fly away. The spare electron will fly away as well as Beta radiation. Often a photon of energy is launched in some direction. These are called gamma rays or x-rays depending on their energy. This spare energy can be used to heat water in nuclear power plants (the water turns steam turbines which produce power) or other purposes.

Fission Fragments and Products

Fission Fragments and Products

But what about fusion???!!!

Nuclear Fusion Chart Image

Nuclear Fusion Chart Image

Well we have seen that fission occurs when an atom is made unstable and comes apart. The difference between the first atom and the product atoms is energy available for power plants, etc. Nuclear fusion is the opposite… really… You take two seemingly simple atoms, such as Hydrogen, and squish them together to create a new atom, which is larger. The difference is released as energy. Below is a chart showing this. PLEASE NOTE: This chart shows protons and neutrons as bundles of smaller particles called Quarks. This is because they really are made from these quarks. Don’t be thrown off!!!

Types of Radiation

Types of Radiation

Here is a chart of some of the forms of radiation produced by atoms.