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Fusion, Fission, Carbon Dating, Tracers & Imaging: Applications of Nuclear Chemistry

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  • 0:05 Nuclear Chemistry
  • 0:38 Nuclear Fusion
  • 2:13 Nuclear Fission
  • 3:26 Radioactive Carbon Dating
  • 4:36 Medical Applications
  • 6:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kristin Born

Kristin has an M.S. in Chemistry and has taught many at many levels, including introductory and AP Chemistry.

What can the sun do that we can't? How do carbon atoms 'date'? Are radioactive isotopes helpful in the medical field? The answers to these questions can be found in this lesson on the applications of nuclear chemistry.

Nuclear Chemistry

Nuclear chemistry is a field of chemistry that deals with the use of radioactive isotopes and other nuclear reactions. Nuclear reactions provide us with enormous amounts of energy. Radioactive isotopes are used to determine the age of old artifacts, diagnose disease, and treat certain types of medical conditions. In this lesson, we are going to take a closer look at each of these applications of nuclear chemistry.

Nuclear Fusion

During nuclear fusion, mass is lost and energy is emitted.
Nuclear Fusion Energy Emitted

What can the sun do that we can't? The answer is 'run on nuclear fusion.' Nuclear fusion occurs when two or more atoms fuse together to form a single, heavier atom. Keep in mind that during this process, not all of the mass is conserved. The 'heavier' atom that is produced is actually lighter than the two individual pieces, which means that mass is lost. Because mass and energy are tied together, when mass is lost, energy is lost, or emitted. In a fusion reaction, massive amounts of energy are emitted.

Currently, there is no feasible way to harness this energy from fusion and use it to power our infrastructure, but several years down the road, it is possible that it could supply us with the energy we need. In a way, we are able to use some of the energy from fusion reactions. The sun is essentially a fusion reactor creating energy by fusing hydrogen atoms together to form helium, and the sun is our primary source of energy.

We use the sun's energy for solar power, photosynthesis, and even in the fossil fuels we burn. Fossil fuels are really just dead organisms that once used the sun for energy and that have been under a great deal of pressure by being buried under rocks. So, right now on Earth, we can't run our own nuclear fusion reactors, but we still rely heavily on the fusion reactions that take place on the sun.

Nuclear Fission

The type of nuclear power that is most common on Earth is nuclear fission. Nuclear fission occurs when a heavier atom splits into smaller pieces. Usually the 'pieces' are smaller atoms, but often neutrons are also released. Many fission reactions are initiated by a very heavy atom being hit (or, in chemistry lingo, bombarded) by a neutron. This makes the already slightly unstable heavy atom even more unstable, which causes it to split into smaller atoms and possibly eject a few neutrons. This releases a lot of energy because the original atom was so unstable.

Also, those neutrons that were ejected can be used to initiate several other fission reactions. This 'domino effect' caused by the neutrons is called a chain reaction, and it can be responsible for keeping the reaction going for a long time. Whenever nuclear power is discussed, whether it be in the form of a nuclear reactor or a nuclear-powered submarine, the energy is produced because of a fission reaction.

Radioactive Carbon Dating

Carbon-14 gradually changes to nitrogen after an organism is no longer living.
Carbon Dating Carbon to Nitrogen

Another nuclear reaction that we can take advantage of is the decay of carbon-14. Carbon is an essential element for living organisms that are constantly exchanging carbon, most of which is carbon-12. Some of those carbon atoms, though, are carbon-14 isotopes. While an organism is living, it has a set ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12. After it dies, the stable carbon-12 remains, while the radioactive carbon-14 undergoes beta decay to turn into nitrogen.

Now, carbon-14 has a half-life of about 5,730 years, so every 5,730 years, half of it is going to decay into nitrogen. The more carbon-14 that an artifact has, the more recent it is. Because many things were once living organisms or were once made from living organisms, measuring the percentage of carbon-14 in an artifact is a very reliable way of being able to tell how old the artifact is.

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