21.4 Transmutation and nuclear energy

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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
• Describe the synthesis of transuranium nuclides
• Explain nuclear fission and fusion processes
• Relate the concepts of critical mass and nuclear chain reactions
• Summarize basic requirements for nuclear fission and fusion reactors

After the discovery of radioactivity, the field of nuclear chemistry was created and developed rapidly during the early twentieth century. A slew of new discoveries in the 1930s and 1940s, along with World War II, combined to usher in the Nuclear Age in the mid-twentieth century. Science learned how to create new substances, and certain isotopes of certain elements were found to possess the capacity to produce unprecedented amounts of energy, with the potential to cause tremendous damage during war, as well as produce enormous amounts of power for society’s needs during peace.

Synthesis of nuclides

Nuclear transmutation is the conversion of one nuclide into another. It can occur by the radioactive decay of a nucleus, or the reaction of a nucleus with another particle. The first manmade nucleus was produced in Ernest Rutherford’s laboratory in 1919 by a transmutation reaction, the bombardment of one type of nuclei with other nuclei or with neutrons. Rutherford bombarded nitrogen atoms with high-speed α particles from a natural radioactive isotope of radium and observed protons resulting from the reaction:

${}_{\phantom{\rule{0.5em}{0ex}}7}^{14}\text{N}+{}_{2}^{4}\text{He}\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}⟶\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}{}_{\phantom{\rule{0.5em}{0ex}}8}^{17}\text{O}+{}_{1}^{1}\text{H}$

The ${}_{\phantom{\rule{0.5em}{0ex}}8}^{17}\text{O}$ and ${}_{1}^{1}\text{H}$ nuclei that are produced are stable, so no further (nuclear) changes occur.

To reach the kinetic energies necessary to produce transmutation reactions, devices called particle accelerators are used. These devices use magnetic and electric fields to increase the speeds of nuclear particles. In all accelerators, the particles move in a vacuum to avoid collisions with gas molecules. When neutrons are required for transmutation reactions, they are usually obtained from radioactive decay reactions or from various nuclear reactions occurring in nuclear reactors. The Chemistry in Everyday Life feature that follows discusses a famous particle accelerator that made worldwide news.

Cern particle accelerator

Located near Geneva, the CERN (“Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire,” or European Council for Nuclear Research) Laboratory is the world’s premier center for the investigations of the fundamental particles that make up matter. It contains the 27-kilometer (17 mile) long, circular Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the largest particle accelerator in the world ( [link] ). In the LHC, particles are boosted to high energies and are then made to collide with each other or with stationary targets at nearly the speed of light. Superconducting electromagnets are used to produce a strong magnetic field that guides the particles around the ring. Specialized, purpose-built detectors observe and record the results of these collisions, which are then analyzed by CERN scientists using powerful computers.

In 2012, CERN announced that experiments at the LHC showed the first observations of the Higgs boson, an elementary particle that helps explain the origin of mass in fundamental particles. This long-anticipated discovery made worldwide news and resulted in the awarding of the 2103 Nobel Prize in Physics to François Englert and Peter Higgs, who had predicted the existence of this particle almost 50 years previously.

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