We explain what a neutron is, how it was discovered, its function and properties. Also, what is nuclear fission and what is it used for?

The neutron is a subatomic particle that gives stability to the atom.

What is a neutron?

A neutron is a type ofsubatomic particle (particles that make up the atoms of thematter) present in the nucleus of some atoms and endowed with a neutral electric charge. All the atoms of theuniverse are made up of neutrons,protons (positively charged) andelectrons (negative electric charge).

Neutrons are found in the nucleus of atoms (except for hydrogen), along with protons. They are held together by strong nuclear forces, while electrons, in the classical atomic model, dance around in different ways.orbits. For this reason, protons and neutrons are known asnucleons.

Discovery of the neutron

James Chadwick experimentally verified the existence of the neutron.

Before the discovery of neutrons, there was one unknown regarding the mass and charge of the atoms, especially when it became evident that the electrons could not be in the atomic nucleus, but that the nuclear mass did not exactly correspond to the total mass of the protons.

Thus, the German physicist Ernest Rutherford, who discovered protons, proposed in 1920 the need for a neutron, that is, a particle that would provide mass to the atom without modifying its electric charge.

Years later, neutrons were discovered in 1932 by the English physicist James Chadwick, winner of the 1935 Nobel Prize for Physical. Thanks to different experiences and studies of the radiation obtained by hitting paraffin or other compounds rich in hydrogen, Chadwick showed that the physical predictions did not correspond to the observed phenomenon.

In other words, the radiation obtained came from particles similar to the proton, but which did not have an electrical charge. That was the first experience that led to the formal discovery of neutrons.

Properties of neutrons

Neutrons have a mass similar to that of the proton, but slightly greater (1.00137 times) and, therefore, much greater than that of the electron (1838.5 times). Like protons, they are made up of fundamental particles calledquarks. Neutrons have two quarks "down"(Below) and one"up" (above). The sum of the charges on these quarks is zero.

When found in the atomic nucleus, neutrons are stable, but when outside, in the free state, they have a half-life of 879.4 seconds, before breaking down into a proton, electron, and electron antineutrino. This is what often happens inside nuclear plants, where there is a high concentration of free neutrons.

Neutron function

Among other things, neutrons are used to generate nuclear energy.

Neutrons fulfill a stabilizing function within the nucleus of the atom. If they weren't, the protons would repel each other. With their presence, neutrons compensate for this repulsive electrical force by the strong nuclear force that keeps protons and neutrons unique in the nucleus.

However, free neutrons can be used for other types of functions, convenient whenhuman being. For example, it is used for the penetration and visualization of materials, through its controlled emission.

They are also used in nuclear fission, that is, the rupture of the atomic nucleus by bombarding it with free neutrons, thus causing reactions that release huge amounts ofEnergy. This, of course, involves many dangers, since uncontrolled emission of neutrons can damage the structure of theprotein basic ofliving creatures.

Nuclear fision

Nuclear fission is a form of atom breakdown, specifically atoms of heavy materials such as uranium (U) and its stable isotopes.

This procedure consists of bombarding the nucleus of, for example and more commonly, uranium with fast neutrons, which causes its cleavage and the release of Energy, and along with it new free neutrons, in a chain reaction capable of generating high levels of usable energy.

When this reaction occurs in a controlled environment, it can be harnessed to generate electricity using turbines and allocating it for human uses, as occurs inside nuclear plants. The nuclear energy is relatively safe and fairly cost-effective, but it does involve certain risks since it by-produces toxic elements (radioactive).

On the contrary, when this reaction occurs in an uncontrolled way, we are in the presence of a atomic bomb, one of the most destructive war inventions that the human being could have conceived, such as those that the government American on the cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the WWII.

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