Nuclear Fission/Fusion: Basics Explained

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California revealed a breakthrough on fusion energy that could one day help curb climate change if companies can scale up the technology to a commercial level in the coming decades.

Scientists on Dec. 5 for the first time briefly achieved a net energy gain in a fusion experiment using lasers, the U.S. Energy Department said. The scientists focused a laser on a target of fuel to fuse two light atoms into a denser one, releasing the energy.


Reactors are the heart of an atomic power plant, where a controlled nuclear fission reaction takes place that produces heat, which is used to generate steam that then spins a turbine to create electricity.

Everything around you is made up of tiny objects called atoms. Most of the mass of each atom is concentrated in the center (which is called the nucleus), and the rest of the mass is in the cloud of electrons surrounding the nucleus. Protons and neutrons are subatomic particles that comprise the nucleus.

Under certain circumstances, the nucleus of a very large atom can split in two. In this process, a certain amount of the large atom’s mass is converted to pure energy following Einstein’s famous formula E = MC2,

Fission is a process in which the nucleus of an atom splits into two or more smaller nuclei, and usually some byproduct particles. When the nucleus splits, the kinetic energy of the fission fragments is transferred to other atoms in the fuel as heat energy, which is eventually used to produce steam to drive the turbines. For every fission event, if at least one of the emitted neutrons on average causes another fission, a self-sustaining chain reaction will take place. A nuclear reactor achieves criticality when each fission event releases a sufficient number of neutrons to sustain an ongoing series of reactions.

Fission and Fusion

There are two fundamental nuclear processes considered for energy production: fission and fusion.

Fission is the energetic splitting of large atoms such as Uranium or Plutonium into two smaller atoms, called fission products. To split an atom, you have to hit it with a neutron. Several neutrons are also released which can go on to split other nearby atoms, producing a nuclear chain reaction of sustained energy release. This nuclear reaction was the first of the two to be discovered. All commercial nuclear power plants in operation use this reaction to generate heat which they turn into electricity.

Fusion is the combining of two small atoms such as Hydrogen or Helium to produce heavier atoms and energy. These reactions can release more energy than fission without producing as many radioactive byproducts. Fusion reactions occur in the sun, generally using Hydrogen as fuel and producing Helium as waste.

These reactions released positively charged particles called alpha particles, which in turn heated the surrounding plasma. (At high temperatures, electrons are ripped from atom’s nuclei and become a plasma or an ionised state of matter. Plasma is also known as the fourth state of matter)


Leave a Comment


Welcome! Login in to your account

Remember me Lost your password?

Lost Password