Conservation of Momentum and Energy in Collisions
The use of the conservation laws for momentum and energy is very important also in particle collisions. This is a very powerful rule because it can allow us to determine the results of a collision without knowing the details of the collision. The law of conservation of momentum states that in the collision of two objects such as billiard balls, the total momentum is conserved. The assumption of conservation of momentum as well as the conservation of kinetic energy makes possible the calculation of the final velocities in two-body collisions. At this point we have to distinguish between two types of collisions:
- Elastic collisions
- Inelastic collisions
A perfectly elastic collision is defined as one in which there is no net conversion of kinetic energy into other forms (such as heat or noise). For the brief moment during which the two objects are in contact, some (or all) of the energy is stored momentarily in the form of elastic potential energy. But if we compare the total kinetic energy just before the collision with the total kinetic energy just after the collision, and they are found to be the same, then we say that the total kinetic energy is conserved.
- Some large-scale interactions like the slingshot type gravitational interactions (also known as a planetary swing-by or a gravity-assist manoeuvre) between satellites and planets are perfectly elastic.
- Collisions between very hard spheres may be nearly elastic, so it is useful to calculate the limiting case of an elastic collision.
- Collisions in ideal gases approach perfectly elastic collisions, as do scattering interactions of sub-atomic particles which are deflected by the electromagnetic force.
- Rutherford scattering is the elastic scattering of charged particles also by the electromagnetic force.
- A neutron-nucleus scattering reaction may be also elastic, but in this case the neutron is deflected by the strong nuclear force.
An inelastic collision is one in which part of the kinetic energy is changed to some other form of energy in the collision. Any macroscopic collision between objects will convert some of the kinetic energy into internal energy and other forms of energy, so no large scale impacts are perfectly elastic. For example, in collisions of common bodies, such as two cars, some energy is always transferred from kinetic energy to other forms of energy, such as thermal energy or energy of sound. The inelastic collision of two bodies always involves a loss in the kinetic energy of the system. The greatest loss occurs if the bodies stick together, in which case the collision is called a completely inelastic collision. Thus, the kinetic energy of the system is not conserved, while the total energy is conserved as required by the general principle of conservation of energy. Momentum is conserved in inelastic collisions, but one cannot track the kinetic energy through the collision since some of it is converted to other forms of energy.
In nuclear physics, an inelastic collision is one in which the incoming particle causes the nucleus it strikes to become excited or to break up. Deep inelastic scattering is a method of probing the structure of subatomic particles in much the same way as Rutherford probed the inside of the atom (see Rutherford scattering).
In nuclear reactors, inelastic collisions are of importance in neutron moderation process. An inelastic scattering plays an important role in slowing down neutrons especially at high energies and by heavy nuclei. Inelastic scattering occurs above a threshold energy. This threshold energy is higher than the energy the first excited state of target nucleus (due to the laws of conservation) and it is given by following formula:
Et = ((A+1)/A)* ε1
where Et is known as the inelastic threshold energy and ε1 is the energy of the first excited state. Therefore especially scattering data of 238U, which is a major component of nuclear fuel in commercial power reactors, are one of the most important data in the neutron transport calculations in the reactor core.