The fission of a heavy nucleus requires a total input energy of about 7 to 8 MeV to initially overcome the strong force which holds the nucleus into a spherical or nearly spherical shape, and from there, deform it into a two-lobed ("peanut") shape in which the lobes are able to continue to separate from each other, pushed by their mutual positive charge, in the most common process of binary fission (two positively charged fission products + neutrons). Once the nuclear lobes have been pushed to a critical distance, beyond which the short range strong force can no longer hold them together, the process of their separation proceeds from the energy of the (longer range) electromagnetic repulsion between the fragments. The result is two fission fragments moving away from each other, at high energy.
About 6 MeV of the fission-input energy is supplied by the simple binding of an extra neutron to the heavy nucleus via the strong force; however, in many fissionable isotopes, this amount of energy is not enough for fission. Uranium-238, for example, has a near-zero fission cross section for neutrons of less than one MeV energy. If no additional energy is supplied by any other mechanism, the nucleus will not fission, but will merely absorb the neutron, as happens when U-238 absorbs slow and even some fraction of fast neutrons, to become U-239. The remaining energy to initiate fission can be supplied by two other mechanisms: one of these is more kinetic energy of the incoming neutron, which is increasingly able to fission a fissionable heavy nucleus as it exceeds a kinetic energy of one MeV or more (so-called fast neutrons). Such high energy neutrons are able to fission U-238 directly (see thermonuclear weapon for application, where the fast neutrons are supplied by nuclear fusion). However, this process cannot happen to a great extent in a nuclear reactor, as too small a fraction of the fission neutrons produced by any type of fission have enough energy to efficiently fission U-238 (fission neutrons have a median energy of 2 MeV, but a mode of only 0.75 MeV, meaning half of them have less than this insufficient energy).
Among the heavy actinide elements, however, those isotopes that have an odd number of neutrons (such as U-235 with 143 neutrons) bind an extra neutron with an additional 1 to 2 MeV of energy over an isotope of the same element with an even number of neutrons (such as U-238 with 146 neutrons). This extra binding energy is made available as a result of the mechanism of neutron pairing effects. This extra energy results from the Pauli exclusion principle allowing an extra neutron to occupy the same nuclear orbital as the last neutron in the nucleus, so that the two form a pair. In such isotopes, therefore, no neutron kinetic energy is needed, for all the necessary energy is supplied by absorption of any neutron, either of the slow or fast variety (the former are used in moderated nuclear reactors, and the latter are used in fast neutron reactors, and in weapons). As noted above, the subgroup of fissionable elements that may be fissioned efficiently with their own fission neutrons (thus potentially causing a nuclear chain reaction in relatively small amounts of the pure material) are termed "fissile." Examples of fissile isotopes are U-235 and plutonium-239.
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