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Chemistry LibreTexts

20: Nuclear Chemistry

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  • Until now, you have studied chemical processes in which atoms share or transfer electrons to form new compounds, leaving the atomic nuclei largely unaffected. In this chapter, we examine some properties of the atomic nucleus and the changes that can occur in atomic nuclei. Nuclear reactions differ from other chemical processes in one critical way: in a nuclear reaction, the identities of the elements change. In addition, nuclear reactions are often accompanied by the release of enormous amounts of energy, as much as a billion times more than the energy released by chemical reactions. Moreover, the yields and rates of a nuclear reaction are generally unaffected by changes in temperature, pressure, or the presence of a catalyst.

    We begin by examining the structure of the atomic nucleus and the factors that determine whether a particular nucleus is stable or decays spontaneously to another element. We then discuss the major kinds of nuclear decay reactions, as well as the properties and uses of the radiation emitted when nuclei decay. You will learn how radioactive emissions can be used to study the mechanisms of chemical reactions and biological processes and how to calculate the amount of energy released during a nuclear reaction. You will also discover why houses are tested for radon gas, how radiation is used to probe organs such as the brain, and how the energy from nuclear reactions can be harnessed to produce electricity. Last, we explore the nuclear chemistry that takes place in stars, and we describe the role that stars play in producing most of the elements in the universe.

    • 20.1: Components of the Nucleus
      protons and neutrons are subatomic particles of the nucleus called nucleons. A nuclide is an atom with a particular number of protons and neutrons. An unstable nucleus that decays spontaneously is radioactive, and its emissions are collectively called radioactivity. Isotopes that emit radiation are called radioisotopes. Each nucleon is attracted to other nucleons by the strong nuclear force. Stable nuclei generally have even numbers of both protons and neutrons and a neutron-to-proton ratio >=1.
    • 20.2: Nuclear Reactions
      Nuclear decay reactions occur spontaneously under all conditions and produce more stable daughter nuclei, whereas nuclear transmutation reactions are induced and form a product nucleus that is more massive than the starting material.
    • 20.3: The Interaction of Nuclear Radiation with Matter
      The effects of radiation on matter depend on the energy of the radiation. Nonionizing radiation is relatively low in energy, and the energy is transferred to matter in the form of heat. Ionizing radiation is relatively high in energy, and when it collides with an atom, it can completely remove an electron to form a positively charged ion that can damage biological tissues.
    • 20.4: Thermodynamic Stability of the Atomic Nucleus
      Unlike a chemical reaction, a nuclear reaction results in a significant change in mass and an associated change of energy, as described by Einstein’s equation. Nuclear reactions are accompanied by large changes in energy, which result in detectable changes in mass. The change in mass is related to the change in energy according to Einstein’s equation: \(ΔE = (Δm)c^2\).
    • 20.5: Applied Nuclear Chemistry
      All practical applications of nuclear power have been based on nuclear fission reactions, which nuclear power plants use to generate electricity. In nuclear power plants, nuclear reactions generate electricity. Light-water reactors use enriched uranium as a fuel. They include fuel rods, a moderator, control rods, and a powerful cooling system to absorb the heat generated in the reactor core. Fusion reactions are thermonuclear reactions because they require high temperatures for initiation.
    • 20.E: Nuclear Chemistry (Exercises)
      Problems and select solutions to Chapter 20.