On the 2nd of December 1942 in a small lab in the center of Chicago, human beings crossed a threshold as a species as we tapped into a fundamental force of the universe.
Physicist Enrico Fermi stood in front of Chicago Pile 1. The world’s first nuclear reactor.
The same technology would be used 3 years later to drop two bombs to end WWII, and would escalate post-war tensions into a question of global catastrophe or survival.
All of the conventional bombs dropped during WWII prior to the two atomic bombs are estimated to have had the equivalent force of 3 megatons of TNT. 16 years later with the technology that Fermi demonstrated, the Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb with the force of over 50 megatons of TNT in a single explosion.
Declassified footage of an atomic explosion.
Fermi had unlocked new source of energy.
It used the power of the ‘strong nuclear force’, one of two nuclear forces that describe the interactions within the particles of an atom.
The strong nuclear force is what binds quarks together to create protons and neutrons, and from residual force left over it also binds protons and neutrons to form the nucleus of the atom. The force comes from a particle known in Quantum Mechanics as the ‘gluon’ – the ‘glue’ that holds everything together.
Fermi achieved this by using neutrons to bombard a heavy element, uranium. Some of the neutrons would stick to the uranium atoms, making them so heavy that they became unstable and would break apart, letting a few gluons and their energy escape.
Put a different way, what Fermi unlocked was a tiny portion of the strong nuclear force of the atom, and this portion is the origin of the atomic bomb, and of nuclear power.
But it also comes with side effects. Unstable atoms cast off particles which we call radiation. There are a few different types:
- Alpha particles (Two protons and two neutrons in a bundle, which is also known as a helium ion)
- Beta particles (Pairs of either an electron and antineutrino, or a positron and neutrino)
- Gamma radiation (Highly energetic photons, which is part of the electromagnetic spectrum)
It is with beta radiation that the second nuclear force is observable, which plays a much smaller role. It is called the ‘weak nuclear force’, and it just determines which pair is emitted from an atom.
Almost 80 years on from Fermi’s breakthrough experiment, nuclear power provides over 10% of the world’s electricity, though what do with its waste is a growing problem.
It is possible that in the future we may have the technology to fuse together elements that are lighter than iron, which also releases gluons but without the nuclear waste. This is called ‘nuclear fusion’. It is the same process by which stars produce their heat and light, as it occurs naturally in their cores as a result of their tremendous gravity.
Developing a machine that can create and control a nuclear fusion reaction would mean a clean source of clean energy that uses the nearly limitless amount of hydrogen in the air and oceans as its fuel. It is considered to be a holy grail in civil engineering, and if an experiment were successful, it would be as impactful for our species as Fermi’s original nuclear reactor.