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Nuclear Fusion

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How to Destroy an Island
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How to Destroy an Island


Credit: Chuck Hansen
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ivy_Mike_-_Elugelab_pt1.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Although nuclear fission devices had been successfully developed during World War II (the atom bomb), nuclear fusion presented more challenges. It wasn’t until 1952 that the first nuclear fusion device (“Ivy Mike”) was tested on a deserted island in the South Pacific. This device was not designed to be a weapon, since it weighed over 80 tons, but was to be a test of some aspects of nuclear theory. The system fired successfully, leaving behind a crater that was 164 feet deep, completely destroying the island of Elugalab (see the before and after images above).

Amazing But True

  • The nucleus of an atom usually contains roughly the same numbers of protons and neutrons. One of the mysteries of our times is how all those protons (being positively charged particles) stay together. We would expect each individual positive charge to push away all the other positive charges. But somehow they all manage to stay together.
  • Nuclear fusion involves the collision of two or more smaller nuclei to form a larger nucleus. In the process, one or more neutrons are usually ejected and large amounts of energy are released. The energy released is a result of the decrease in mass as the two nuclei fuse (a consequence of Einstein’s E=mc^2 relationship).
  • Credit: Image Editor
    Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11304375@N07/2819311727/
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    Our Sun is a nuclear fusion reactor that releases tremendous amounts of energy in the form of light and heat [Figure2]


  • The Ivy Mike experiment not only released large amounts of energy (much of it from fission reactions, but a significant amount from fusion processes), two new elements were created. Einsteinium (atomic number 99) and fermium (atomic number 100) were both the products of nuclear fusion reactions with the uranium-238 that was employed to initiate the original deuterium fusion reaction.
  • Watch a video at the link below to learn more about nuclear fusion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cb8NX3HiS4U

Show What you Know

Use the links below to learn more about nuclear fusion. Then answer the following questions.

  1. What other nuclear particle might be ejected during some fusion reactions?
  2. Why are many promising fusion reactions based on using deuterium?
  3. How did the hydrogen bomb get its name?
  4. How powerful was the blast?
  5. What is “aneutroinic fusion”?

Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: Chuck Hansen; Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ivy_Mike_-_Elugelab_pt1.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: Image Editor; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11304375@N07/2819311727/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0


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