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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, a nuclear reaction is the process in which two nuclei or nuclear particles collide to produce products different from the initial particles. In principle a reaction can involve more than three particles colliding, but because the probability of three or more nuclei to meet at the same time at the same place is much less than for two nuclei, such an event is exceptionally rare. While the transformation is spontaneous in the case of radioactive decay, it is initiated by a particle in the case of a nuclear reaction. If the particles collide and separate without changing, the process is called an elastic collision rather than a reaction.

Li6-D Reaction.svg

In the symbolic figure shown to the right, 63Li and deuterium (21H) react to form the highly excited intermediate nucleus 84Be which then decays immediately into two alpha particles. Protons are symbolically represented by red spheres, and neutrons by blue spheres.

63Li  21H  →  42He  ?

To balance the equation above, the second nucleus to the right must have atomic number 2 and mass number 4; it is therefore also Helium-4. The complete equation therefore reads:

63Li  21H  →  42He  42He

or more simply:

63Li  21H  →  42He



Instead of using the full equations as shown in the previous section, in many situations a compact notation is used to describe nuclear reactions. This is A(b,c)D, which is equivalent to A + b gives c + D. Common light particles are often abbreviated in this shorthand, typically p for proton, n for neutron, d for deuteron, α representing an alpha particle or helium-4, β for beta particle or electron, γ for gamma photon, etc. The reaction above would be written as Li-6(d,α)α.[1][2]

Energy conservation

Kinetic energy may be released during the course of a reaction (exothermic reaction) or kinetic energy may have to be supplied for the reaction to take place (endothermic reaction). This can be calculated by reference to a table of very accurate particle rest masses (see, as follows. According to the reference tables, the 63Li nucleus has a relative atomic mass of 6.015 atomic mass units (abbreviated u), the deuterium has 2.014 u, and the helium-4 nucleus has 4.0026 u Thus:

  • Total rest mass on left side = 6.015 + 2.014 = 8.029 u
  • Total rest mass on right side = 2 × 4.0026 = 8.0052 u
  • Missing rest mass = 8.029 - 8.0052 = 0.0238 atomic mass units.

In a nuclear reaction, the total (relativistic) energy is conserved. The "missing" rest mass must therefore reappear as kinetic energy released in the reaction; its source is the nuclear binding energy. Using Einstein's mass-energy equivalence formula E = mc², the amount of energy released can be determined. We first need the energy equivalent of one atomic mass unit:

1 u c2 = (1.66054 × 10-27 kg) × (2.99792 × 108 m/s)2 
= 1.49242 × 10-10 kg (m/s)2 = 1.49242 × 10-10 J (Joule)
× (1 MeV / 1.60218 × 10-13 J)
= 931.49 MeV,
so 1 u c2 = 931.49 MeV.

Hence, the energy released is 0.0238 × 931 MeV = 22.4 MeV.

Expressed differently: the mass is reduced by 0.3 %, corresponding to 0.3 % of 90 PJ/kg is 300 TJ/kg.

This is a large amount of energy for a nuclear reaction; the amount is so high because the binding energy per nucleon of the helium-4 nucleus is unusually high, because the He-4 nucleus is "doubly magic". (The He-4 nucleus is unusually stable and tightly-bound for the same reason that the helium atom is inert: each pair of protons and neutrons in He-4 occupies a filled 1s nuclear orbital in the same way that the pair of electrons in the helium atom occupy a filled 1s electron orbital). Consequently, alpha particles appear frequently on the right hand side of nuclear reactions.

The energy released in a nuclear reaction can appear mainly in one of three ways:

When the product nucleus is metastable, this is indicated by placing an asterisk ("*") next to its atomic number. This energy is eventually released through nuclear decay.

A small amount of energy may also emerge in the form of X-rays. Generally, the product nucleus has a different atomic number, and thus the configuration of its electron shells is wrong. As the electrons rearrange themselves and drop to lower energy levels, internal transition X-rays (X-rays with precisely defined emission lines) may be emitted.

Q-value and energy balance

In writing down the reaction equation, in a way analogous to a chemical equation, one may in addition give the reaction energy on the right side:

Target nucleus + projectile -> Final nucleus + ejectile + Q.

For the particular case discussed above, the reaction energy has already been calculated as Q = 22.4 MeV. Hence:

63Li  21H  →  42He  22.4 MeV

The reaction energy (the "Q-value") is positive for exothermal reactions and negative for endothermal reactions. On the one hand, it is the difference between the sums of kinetic energies on the final side and on the initial side. But on the other hand, it is also the difference between the nuclear rest masses on the initial side and on the final side (in this way, we have calculated the Q-value above).

Reaction rates

If the reaction equation is balanced, that does not mean that the reaction really occurs. The rate at which reactions occur depends on the particle energy, the particle flux and the reaction cross section. An example of a large repository of reaction rates is the REACLIB database, as maintained by the Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics.

Neutrons vs ions

In the initial collision which begins the reaction, the particles must approach closely enough so that the short range strong force can affect them. As most common nuclear particles are positively charged, this means they must overcome considerable electrostatic repulsion before the reaction can begin. Even if the target nucleus is part of a neutral atom, the other particle must penetrate well beyond the electron cloud and closely approach the nucleus, which is positively charged. Thus, such particles must be first accelerated to high energy, for example by:

Also, since the force of repulsion is proportional to the product of the two charges, reactions between heavy nuclei are rarer, and require higher initiating energy, than those between a heavy and light nucleus; while reactions between two light nuclei are the most common ones.

Neutrons, on the other hand, have no electric charge to cause repulsion, and are able to effect a nuclear reaction at very low energies. In fact at extremely low particle energies (corresponding, say, to thermal equilibrium at room temperature), the neutron's de Broglie wavelength is greatly increased, possibly greatly increasing its capture cross section, at energies close to resonances of the nuclei involved. Thus low energy neutrons may be even more reactive than high energy neutrons.

Notable types

While the number of possible nuclear reactions is immense, there are several types which are more common, or otherwise notable. Some examples include:

  • Fusion reactions - two light nuclei join to form a heavier one, with additional particles (usually protons or neutrons) thrown off to conserve momentum.
  • Fission reactions - a very heavy nucleus, spontaneously or after absorbing additional light particles (usually neutrons), splits into two or sometimes three pieces. (α decay is not usually called fission.)
  • Spallation - a nucleus is hit by a particle with sufficient energy and momentum to knock out several small fragments or, smash it into many fragments.
  • Induced gamma emission belongs to a class in which only photons were involved in creating and destroying states of nuclear excitation.

Direct reactions

An intermediate energy projectile transfers energy or picks up or loses nucleons to the nucleus in a single quick (10−21 second) event. Energy and momentum transfer are relatively small. These are particularly useful in experimental nuclear physics, because the reaction mechanisms are often simple enough to calculate with sufficient accuracy to probe the structure of the target nucleus.

Inelastic scattering

Only energy and momentum are transferred.

  • (p,p') tests differences between nuclear states
  • (α,α') measures nuclear surface shapes and sizes. Since α particles that hit the nucleus react more violently, elastic and shallow inelastic α scattering are sensitive to the shapes and sizes of the targets, like light scattered from a small black object.
  • (e,e') is useful for probing the interior structure. Since electrons interact less strongly than do protons and neutrons, they reach to the centers of the targets and their wave functions are less distorted by passing through the nucleus.

Transfer reactions

Usually at moderately low energy, one or more nucleons are transferred between the projectile and target. These are useful in studying outer shell structure of nuclei.

  • (α,n) and (α,p) reactions. Some of the earliest nuclear reactions studied involved an alpha particle produced by alpha decay, knocking a nucleon from a target nucleus.
  • (d,n) and (d,p) reactions. A deuteron beam impinges on a target; the target nuclei absorb either the neutron or proton from the deuteron. The deuteron is so loosely bound that this is almost the same as proton or neutron capture. A compound nucleus may be formed, leading to additional neutrons being emitted more slowly. (d,n) reactions are used to generate energetic neutrons.
  • The strangeness exchange reaction (K,π) has been used to study hypernuclei.
  • The reaction 14N(α,p)17O performed by Rutherford in 1919, is generally regarded as the first nuclear transmutation experiment.

Reactions with neutrons

T 7Li 14C
(n,α) 6Li + n → T + α 10B + n → 7Li + α 17O + n → 14C + α 21Ne + n → 18O + α 37Ar + n → 34S + α
(n,p) 3He + n → T + p 7Be + n → 7Li + p 14N + n → 14C + p 22Na + n → 22Ne + p

Reactions with neutrons are important in nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. While the best known neutron reactions are neutron scattering, neutron capture, and nuclear fission, for some light nuclei (especially odd-odd nuclei) the most probable reaction with a thermal neutron is a transfer reaction:

Some reactions are only possible with fast neutrons:

Compound nuclear reactions

Either a low energy projectile is absorbed or a higher energy particle transfers energy to the nucleus, leaving it with too much energy to be fully bound together. On a time scale of about 10−19 seconds, particles, usually neutrons, are "boiled" off. That is, it remains together until enough energy happens to be concentrated in one neutron to escape the mutual attraction. Charged particles rarely boil off because of the coulomb barrier. The excited quasi-bound nucleus is called a compound nucleus.

  • Low energy (e, e' xn), (γ, xn) (the xn indicating one or more neutrons), where the gamma or virtual gamma energy is near the giant dipole resonance. These increase the need for radiation shielding around electron accelerators

See also


M.G. Bowler, Nuclear Physics, Pergamon Press 1973. ISBN 0-08-016983-X

Simple English

A nuclear reaction is a process from physics. In it, two or more particles collide. The result are new particles which are different from the first ones. In the case of radioactivity this reaction is spontaneous. It can also be done on purpose, to make energy. This energy can then be used for different things, for example to make electricity (as in a nuclear power plant). It can also be used as fuel for a bomb.

In the example figure 6Li reacts with deuterium. This makes Beryllium which then decays into two alpha particles.

Nuclear reactions occur in the sun, in nuclear reactors, in particle accelerators, and in outer space. Other than radioactive decay, there are very few nuclear reactions that occur outside of these special places on earth. Nuclear reactors use nuclear reactions to make heat and electricity. Accelerators sometimes cause nuclear reactions to make radioactive materials. Particles from outer space cause nuclear reactions in earth's atmosphere that make air slightly radioactive with carbon-14.

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