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Nuclear Physics GCSE

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Basic Information/facts about atoms:

  • All matter consists of atoms; it comes from the Greek word meaning ‘indivisible’ - they cannot be divided by chemicals.
  • Although the nucleus is generally around one ten-thousandth the size of an atom, it contains more that 99.9% of the mass!
  • Each atom is made up of electrons, protons and neutrons. Protons and neutrons are tightly packed at the centre of the atom in the nucleus, whilst the electrons orbit the nucleus in shells.
  • Electrons have a negative charge (-1), protons have a positive charge (+1) and neutrons have no charge.
  • Atoms always have the same number of electrons as protons; therefore there is overall no charge.
  • Substances made up of only one type of atom are called elements. There are approximately 117 elements known so far and the number of protons in the nucleus determines which element it is.
  • If the number of neutrons is different in the element, it is called an isotope. Not enough necessary neutrons may cause a nucleus to be unstable or lead to nuclear decay, this is because protons are positively charged (so they repel each other), and neutrons normally separate these apart.
  • The number of electrons determines how stable and reactive the atom is. Each atom has two electrons in its first shell and eight continuing on, if all is filled it is stable. Most atoms do not have a full outer shell and try to react with another through either ionic bonding or covalent bonding.
  • Protons weigh relative in size to neutrons – 1 mass; however electrons are a lot smaller weighing relatively 0.0005 of mass.image12.pngimage13.pngimage01.png
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Rutherford was amazed that some alpha particles diverted at dramatic angles instead of continuing through the thin metal foil, they seemed to ‘bounce back.’ It was noticed that an angle greater than ten degrees caused much more alpha particles to scatter than predicted.image15.pngAs only a small proportion of particles were scattered, it seemed as though whatever caused the force had to be very small.He concluded the idea of the nucleus at the centre of an atom containing protons with electrons orbiting and this is why the positively charged alpha particles reflected back.He soon founded the Rutherford model (model of the atom) which suggested the past ‘plum pudding model’ was incorrect. This was where scientists believed the positively charged matter was spread out evenly in an atom with the electrons buried inside. If the ‘pudding pudding model’ was correct, it would have deflected back at a consistent level, yet through Rutherford’s test if demonstrated the protons were in the middle of the atom. His ideas were accepted because it explains radioactivity and the changes that happen with an unstable nucleus, it also predicted what a neutron was.

Radioactive decay/Background Radiation:

  • The three main types of radiation are alpha, beta and gamma.
  • Background radiation is all around us and most of it comes from natural sources or medical supplies.
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The fission of an atom of uranium produces ten million times the energy produces from combustion of an atom of carbon from coal.In France, nuclear power supplies 80% of the countries electricity.In the early hours of the 26th April 1986, one of the four nuclear reactors at Chernobyl exploded in Ukraine. It is considered to be the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history as the chain reaction went out of control. 237 people died from acute radiation sickness and 135,000 were evacuated from the area.Nuclear energy would be the most dominant source of energy now if it hadn’t been for the Chernobyl and other nuclear disasters.  

Nuclear Warfare:

The discovery of nuclear power has led to nuclear warfare and weapons capable of destroying hundreds of millions of people. The rapidly advancing modern technology means in the future there could be far severe consequences in wars. The detonation of nuclear weapons can have very damaging effects, for example the immediate release of X ray energy, thermal radiation, atmospheric blast and long term radiation.

Development – It began when Antoine Becquerel discovered uranium’s radioactivity. Then Pierre and Marie Curie isolated radium. Einstein then worked out we could transform mass into energy causing huge amounts to be released. Ernest Rutherford and assistants found out about the positive central nucleus and this would release large amounts of energy if it was broken. Nuclear Fission then made it able to split an atom, transforming mass into energy. This soon allowed the creation of the atomic bomb.

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