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Applications of Nuclear Physics

Applications of Nuclear Physics

This lesson aligns with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) PS1.C

Introduction Nuclear physics is referred to as the branch of science that studies atomic nuclei, their constituents, and interactions. Nuclear interactions include radioactive decay, nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion. The applications of nuclear physics play a significant role in the field of power generation using nuclear energy. After the explanation of the force holding the nucleus, we headed towards the splitting and fusing nucleus. The process of fusing two lighter nuclei to generate energy is known as nuclear fusion, and the process of splitting the heavy nucleus to generate energy is known as nuclear fission. In this article, we will learn about the applications of nuclear physics in energy and security, healthcare, and other aspects of everyday life.

Applications of Nuclear Physics
Nuclear reactions are processes in which one or two nuclei and subatomic particles collide with enough energy to produce more nuclides. A tremendous amount of nuclear energy is released during the nuclear reactions. Nuclear energy is an essential part of the world’s energy production. Most critical developments in medicine, energy, security, and materials originate from research in nuclear physics. There are a few applications of nuclear physics, as discussed below.

Energy and Security 
Clean Source of Energy 

Uranium is the radioactive element used to create fuel. It comes from stable regions around the world and is easily available. This means that nuclear power is a long-term and low-carbon source. Nuclear energy is very effective and reliable. Nuclear energy is the largest source of clean power in the United States. It produces approximately 800 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. Another huge benefit of nuclear energy is that it avoids more than 470 million metric tons of carbon each year.

Support National Security
A strong civilian nuclear sector is crucial to U.S. national security. The United States must maintain its global leadership to influence the peaceful use of nuclear technologies. The United States government works with different countries to develop new opportunities for the nation’s nuclear technologies.

Modern innovations in nuclear physics have led to ground-breaking medical diagnostics and therapy methods. Few are explained here.

Positron Emission Tomography (PET)
Positron emission tomography is a nuclear imaging technique that produces a three-dimensional image of the body. Positron-emitting radionuclide or tracer emits pairs of gamma rays that are detected by the system, then they are introduced into the body on a biologically active molecule. This three-dimensional image of tracer concentration is then constructed by computer analysis.

Typically, PET scans are combined with computed tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) which provide three-dimensional images of the organ. Common uses of PET include diagnosing heart disease, brain disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease. Moreover, a PET scan gets detailed information about cancerous tumors to decide the best treatment option.

A radioactive tracer is a chemical compound in which one or more atoms are replaced by radioactive isotopes. The leading principle in the creation of a radioisotope tracer is that an atom in a chemical compound is replaced by another atom of the same element. In a tracer, this substituting atom is a radioisotope. This process is also known as radioisotope labeling.  

For most diagnostic procedures, the tracer is injected and swallowed. Then the radiologists use a radiation detector to see how much it is absorbed and how it reacts in the organs or tissue of the body. When these tracers are detected, then they are turned into a picture to help find problems in the organs of the body. They also provide information about how organs, tissues, and cells are functioning inside the body. 

Everyday Life
The domestic smoke alarm uses the radioisotope of the element americium to detect smoke. In a smoke detector, a small amount of americium-241 emits alpha particles into an open-air ionization chamber. Inside the chamber, the air becomes ionized, enabling a small electrical current to flow. If smoke is detected, the current declines, and an alarm sounds.

  • Nuclear physics is a scientific discipline that deals with the atomic nucleus, its constituents, and its interactions.
  • A significant amount of energy is released during the nuclear reactions known as nuclear energy.
  • Nuclear energy is a long-term source of electricity to deal with the worldwide problem of power.
  • Nuclear physics techniques have brought innovations in medical diagnostics and cancer therapy.
  • Radioactive tracers are used to get detailed information about organs or tissues of the body.
  • The ionizing radiation earned much importance in sterilizing household items.

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