Atomic Nucleus

A figurative depiction of the helium-4 atom with the electron cloud in shades of gray. Protons and neutrons are most likely found in exactly the same space, at the central point. Source License CC BY-SA 3.0

In physics, the atomic nucleus is the central part of an atom. In comparison to an atom, it is much more smaller and contains most of the mass of the atom. The atomic nucleus also contains all of its positive electric charge (in protons), while all of its negative charge is distributed in the electron cloud.

The atomic nucleus was discovered by Ernest Rutherford, who proposed a new model of the atom based on Geiger-Marsden experiments. These experiments were performed between 1908 and 1913 by Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden under the direction of Ernest Rutherford. These experiments were a landmark series of experiments by which scientists discovered that every atom contains a nucleus (whose diameter is of the order 10-14m) where all of its positive charge and most of its mass are concentrated in a small region called an atomic nucleus. In Rutherford’s atom, the diameter of its sphere (about 10-10 m) of influence is determined by its electrons. In other words, the nucleus occupies only about 10-12 of the total volume of the atom or less (the nuclear atom is largely empty space), but it contains all the positive charge and at least 99.95% of the total mass of the atom.

After discovery of the neutron in 1932 by the English physicist James Chadwick, models for a nucleus composed of protons and neutrons were quickly developed by Dmitri Ivanenko and Werner Heisenberg.

All matter except dark matter is made of molecules, which are themselves made of atoms. The atoms consist of two parts. An atomic nucleus and an electron cloud, which are bound together by electrostatic force. The nucleus itself is generally made of protons and neutrons but even these are composite objects. Inside the protons and neutrons, we find the quarks.

Inside the atomic nucleus, the residual strong force, also known as the nuclear force, acts to hold neutrons and protons together in nuclei. In nuclei, this force acts against the enormous repulsive electromagnetic force of the protons. The term residual is associated with the fact, it is the residuum of the fundamental strong interaction between the quarks that make up the protons and neutrons. The residual strong force acts indirectly through the virtual π and ρ mesons, which transmit the force between nucleons that holds the nucleus together.

Properties of Nucleus

The nuclear properties (atomic mass, nuclear cross-sections) of the element are determined by the number of protons (atomic number) and number of neutrons (neutron number). For example, actinides with odd neutron number are usually fissile (fissionable with slow neutrons) while actinides with even neutron number are usually not fissile (but are fissionable with fast neutrons). Heavy nuclei with an even number of protons and an even number of neutrons are (due to Pauli exclusion principle) very stable thanks to the occurrence of ‘paired spin’. On the other hand, nuclei with an odd number of protons and neutrons are mostly unstable.

Mass of Nucleus

Proton Number - Atomic NumberAs was written, almost all of the mass of an atom is located in the nucleus, with a very small contribution from the electron cloud. The mass of the nucleus is associated with the atomic mass number, which is the total number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus of an atom. The mass number is different for each different isotope of a chemical element. The mass number is written either after the element name or as a superscript to the left of an element’s symbol. For example, the most common isotope of carbon is carbon-12, or 12C.

The size and mass of atoms are so small that the use of normal measuring units, while possible, is often inconvenient. Units of measure have been defined for mass and energy on the atomic scale to make measurements more convenient to express. The unit of measure for mass is the atomic mass unit (amu). One atomic mass unit is equal to 1.66 x 10-24 grams.

Besides the standard kilogram, it is a second mass standard. It is the carbon-12 atom, which, by international agreement, has been assigned a mass of 12 atomic mass units (u). The relation between the two units is one atomic mass unit is equal:

1u = 1.66 x 10-24 grams.

One unified atomic mass unit is approximately the mass of one nucleon (either a single proton or neutron) and is numerically equivalent to 1 g/mol.

For 12C the atomic mass is exactly 12u, since the atomic mass unit is defined from it. For other isotopes, the isotopic mass usually differs and is usually within 0.1 u of the mass number. For example, 63Cu (29 protons and 34 neutrons) has a mass number of 63 and an isotopic mass in its nuclear ground state is 62.91367 u.

There are two reasons for the difference between mass number and isotopic mass, known as the mass defect:

  1. The neutron is slightly heavier than the proton. This increases the mass of nuclei with more neutrons than protons relative to the atomic mass unit scale based on 12C with equal numbers of protons and neutrons.
  2. The nuclear binding energy varies between nuclei. A nucleus with greater binding energy has a lower total energy, and therefore a lower mass according to Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence relation E = mc2. For 63Cu the atomic mass is less than 63 so this must be the dominant factor.

Note that, it was found the rest mass of an atomic nucleus is measurably smaller than the sum of the rest masses of its constituent protons, neutrons and electrons. Mass was no longer considered unchangeable in the closed system. The difference is a measure of the nuclear binding energy which holds the nucleus together. According to the Einstein relationship (E=mc2), this binding energy is proportional to this mass difference and it is known as the mass defect.

Radius and Density of Atomic Nucleus

Typical nuclear radii are of the order 10−14 m. Assuming spherical shape, nuclear radii can be calculated according to following formula:

r = r0 . A1/3

where r0 = 1.2 x 10-15 m = 1.2 fm

If we use this approximation, we therefore expect the geometrical cross-sections of nuclei to be of the order of πr2 or 4.5×10−30 m² for hydrogen nuclei or 1.74×10−28 m² for 238U nuclei.

Nuclear density is the density of the nucleus of an atom. It is the ratio of mass per unit volume inside the nucleus. Since atomic nucleus carries most of atom’s mass and atomic nucleus is very small in comparison to entire atom, the nuclear density is very high.

The nuclear density for a typical nucleus can be approximately calculated from the size of the nucleus and from its mass. For example, natural uranium consists primarily of isotope 238U (99.28%), therefore the atomic mass of uranium element is close to the atomic mass of 238U isotope (238.03u). Its radius of this nucleus will be:

r = r0 . A1/3 = 7.44 fm.

Assuming it is spherical, its volume will be:

V = 4πr3/3 = 1.73 x 10-42 m3.

The usual definition of nuclear density gives for its density:

ρnucleus = m / V = 238 x 1.66 x 10-27 / (1.73 x 10-42) = 2.3 x 1017kg/m3.

Thus, the density of nuclear material is more than 2.1014 times greater than that of water. It is an immense density. The descriptive term nuclear density is also applied to situations where similarly high densities occur, such as within neutron stars. Such immense densities are also found in neutron stars.

Excited Nucleus – Nuclear Resonance

Compound state - resonance

Energy levels of compound state. For neutron absorption reaction on 238U the first resonance E1 corresponds to the excitation energy of 6.67eV. E0 is a base state of 239U.

Highly excited nuclei formed by the combination of the incident particle and target nucleus are known as nuclear resonances. If a target nucleus X is bombarded with particles a, it is sometimes observed that the ensuing nuclear reaction takes place with appreciable probability only if the energy of the particle a is in the neighborhood of certain definite energy values. These energy values are referred to as resonance energies. The compound nuclei of these certain energies are referred to as nuclear resonances. Resonances are usually found only at relatively low energies of the projectile. The widths of the resonances increase in general with increasing energies. At higher energies the widths may reach the order of the distances between resonances and then no resonances can be observed.

Nuclear and Reactor Physics:

  1. J. R. Lamarsh, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Theory, 2nd ed., Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA (1983).
  2. J. R. Lamarsh, A. J. Baratta, Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, 3d ed., Prentice-Hall, 2001, ISBN: 0-201-82498-1.
  3. W. M. Stacey, Nuclear Reactor Physics, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, ISBN: 0- 471-39127-1.
  4. Glasstone, Sesonske. Nuclear Reactor Engineering: Reactor Systems Engineering, Springer; 4th edition, 1994, ISBN: 978-0412985317
  5. W.S.C. Williams. Nuclear and Particle Physics. Clarendon Press; 1 edition, 1991, ISBN: 978-0198520467
  6. G.R.Keepin. Physics of Nuclear Kinetics. Addison-Wesley Pub. Co; 1st edition, 1965
  7. Robert Reed Burn, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Operation, 1988.
  8. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.
  9. Paul Reuss, Neutron Physics. EDP Sciences, 2008. ISBN: 978-2759800414.

Advanced Reactor Physics:

  1. K. O. Ott, W. A. Bezella, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Statics, American Nuclear Society, Revised edition (1989), 1989, ISBN: 0-894-48033-2.
  2. K. O. Ott, R. J. Neuhold, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Dynamics, American Nuclear Society, 1985, ISBN: 0-894-48029-4.
  3. D. L. Hetrick, Dynamics of Nuclear Reactors, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48453-2. 
  4. E. E. Lewis, W. F. Miller, Computational Methods of Neutron Transport, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48452-4.

See above: