How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works
 

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
 
Question 1163

What are the relative efficiencies of the fission and fusion reactions in thermonuclear weapons? Is every last grain of fissile and fusible matter converted to energy or is there a loss somewhere?
While both fission and fusion convert substantial fractions of the mass in a thermonuclear weapon into energy, most of the bomb's initial matter remains matter, not energy. When a uranium nucleus fissions to become smaller nuclei, about 0.1% of the uranium nucleus's mass becomes energy. When two deuterium nuclei—the heavy isotope of hydrogen—fuse together to become helium, about 0.3% of the deuterium nuclei's masses become energy. Despite these seemingly small percentages, this scale of matter to energy conversion dwarfs that of chemical explosives, which convert only parts per billion of their masses into energy.

While fusion is somewhat more energy efficient than fission, that's not the whole reason why hydrogen bombs (thermonuclear bombs) are more powerful than uranium bombs (fission bombs). The main reason is that thermonuclear bombs can be much larger than fission bombs because there is no upper limit to the amount of hydrogen you can assemble in a small region of space. In contrast, if you assemble too much fissile uranium in a small region of space, a chain reaction will begin and the material will overheat and explode. At the height of the cold war, the Soviet Union built gigantic thermonuclear weapons with explosive yields as large as 100 megatons of TNT.

         

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