Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....


As we have seen, heavy nuclei tend to fly apart because each proton is being repelled by every other proton in the nucleus, but is only attracted by its nearest neighbors. The nucleus splits up into two parts, and as soon as those two parts are more than about 1 fm apart, the strong nuclear force no longer causes the two fragments to attract each other. The electrical repul-sion then accelerates them, causing them to gain a large amount of kinetic energy. This release of kinetic energy is what powers nuclear reactors and fission bombs.

It might seem, then, that the lightest nuclei would be the most stable, but that is not the case. Let's compare an extremely light nucleus like 4He with a somewhat heavier one, 16O. A neutron or proton in 4He can be attracted by the three others, but in 16O, it might have five or six neighbors attracting it. The 16O nucleus is therefore more stable.

It turns out that the most stable nuclei of all are those around nickel and iron, having about 30 protons and 30 neutrons. Just as a nucleus that is too heavy to be stable can release energy by splitting apart into pieces that are closer to the most stable size, light nuclei can release energy if you stick them together to make bigger nuclei that are closer to the most stable size. Fusing one nucleus with another is called nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion is what powers our sun and other stars.

This array of gamma-ray detectors, called GAMMASPHERE, is currently housed at Argonne National Laboratory, in Illinois. During operation, the array is closed up, and a beam of ions produced by a particle accelerator strikes a target at its center, producing nuclear fusion reactions. The gamma rays can be studied for information about the structure of the fused nuclei, which are typically varieties not found in nature. The barrel-shaped part behind the scientist is a mass separator used for identifying the type of nucleus formed in the reaction after it recoils out of GAMMASPHERE.

Last Update: 2009-06-21