This reaction liberates an amount of energy more than a million times greater than one gets from a typical chemical reaction. Such a large amount of energy is released in fusion reactions because when two light nuclei fuse, the sum of the masses of the product nuclei is less than the sum of the masses of the initial fusing nuclei. Once again, Einstein's equation, E=mc2, explains that the mass that is lost it converted into energy carried away by the fusion products.
Even though fusion n is an energetically favorable reaction for light nuclei, it does not occur under standard conditions here on Earth because of the large energy investment that is required. Because the reacting nuclei are both positively charged, there is a large electrostatic repulsion between them as they come together. Only when they are squeezed very close to one another do they feel the strong nuclear force, which can overcome the electrostatic repulsion and cause them to fuse.
Fusion reactions have been going on for billions of years in our universe. In fact, nuclear fusion reactions are responsible for the energy output of most stars, including our own Sun. Scientists on Earth have been able to produce fusion reactions for only about the last sixty years. At first, there were small scale studies in which only a few fusion reactions actually occurred. However, these first experiments later lead to the development of thermonuclear fusion weapons (hydrogen bombs).
Fusion is the process that takes place in stars like our Sun. Whenever we feel the warmth of the Sun and see by its light, we are observing the products of fusion. We know that all life on Earth exists because the light generated by the Sun produces food and warms our planet. Therefore, we can say that fusion is the basis for our life.
When a star is formed, it initially consists of hydrogen and helium created in the Big Bang, the process that created our universe. Hydrogen isotopes collide in a star and fuse forming a helium nucleus. Later, the helium nuclei collide and form heavier elements. Fusion is a nuclear reaction in which nuclei combine to form a heavier nucleus. It is the basic reaction which drives the Sun. Lighter elements fuse and form heavier elements. These reactions continue until the nuclei reach iron (around mass sixty), the nucleus with the most binding energy. When a nucleus reaches mass sixty, no more fusion occurs in a star because it is energetically unfavorable to produce higher masses. Once a star has converted a large fraction of its core's mass to iron, it has almost reached the end of its life.
The fusion chain cannot continue so its fuel is reduced. Some stars keep shrinking until they become a cooling ember made up of iron. However, if a star is sufficiently massive, a tremendous, violent, brilliant explosion can happen. A star will suddenly expand and produce, in a very short time, more energy than our Sun will produce in a lifetime. When this happens, we say that a star has become a supernova.
While a star is in the supernova phase, many important reactions occur. The nuclei are accelerated to much higher velocities than can occur in a fusing star. With the added energy caused by their speed, nuclei can fuse and produce elements higher in mass than iron. The extra energy in the explosion is necessary to over come the energy barrier of a higher mass element. Elements such as lead, gold, and silver found on Earth were once the debris of a supernova explosion. The element iron that we find all through the Earth and in its center is directly derived from both super novae and dead stars.
More peaceful uses of fusion are being researched today with the hope that soon we will be able to control fusion reactions to generate clean, inexpensive power.
The products shown in the above equation are only one set of many possible product nuclei. Fission reactions can produce any combination of lighter nuclei so long as the number of protons and neutrons in the products sum up to those in the initial fissioning nucleus. As with fusion, a great amount of energy can be released in fission because for heavy nuclei, the summed masses of the lighter product nuclei is less than the mass of the fissioning nucleus.
Fission occurs because of the electrostatic repulsion created by the large number of positively charged protons contained in a heavy nucleus. Two smaller nuclei have less internal electrostatic repulsion than one larger nucleus. So, once the larger nucleus can overcome the strong nuclear force which holds it together, it can fission. Fission can be seen as a "tug-of-war" between the strong attractive nuclear force and the repulsive electrostatic force. In fission reactions, electrostatic repulsion wins.
Fission is a process that has been occurring in the universe for billions of years. As mentioned above, we have not only used fission to produce energy for nuclear bombs, but we also use fission peacefully everyday to produce energy in nuclear power plants. Interestingly, although the first man-made nuclear reactor was produced only about fifty years ago, the Earth operated a natural fission reactor in a uranium deposit in West Africa about two billion years ago!