How to split an atom

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Add this to the pile of mind-bending atom qualities: an atomic nucleus has less mass as a whole than its protons and neutrons would have separately. How is this possible? Well, when the nucleus is formed, some of the mass of its constituent parts changes into energy that binds the protons and neutrons together. In other words, there’s high potential energy locked up in the nucleus.

It’s possible to release this energy, and actually harness it, by splitting specific types of atoms apart into multiple fragments – a process known as nuclear fission. All you need to break apart a uranium-235 atom is a slow-moving free neutron. The uranium atom will absorb the free neutron, the extra energy makes the uranium nucleus highly unstable, and the atom splits into two smaller atoms and two or three free neutrons. The potential energy in the nucleus is released as kinetic energy, in the form of these particles moving at great speed. The resulting free neutrons, in turn, can break apart other uranium-235 atoms, leading to a chain reaction.

“All you need to break apart a uranium-235 atom is a slow-moving free neutron”

A powerplant controls the reaction and harnesses the heat of this kinetic energy in order to generate steam that turns turbines. In contrast, in an atomic bomb the reaction is allowed to go unchecked, in order to generate a massive explosion.

You can also tap into this energy through nuclear fusion – the combining of two nuclei into a new nucleus. Nuclear fusion generates the energy of stars and hydrogen bombs. However, nobody has been able to harness it effectively as a power source yet.