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What is meant by Uranium enrichment and how is it done?
first. atoms... atoms are made of protons, neutrons and electrons... the atomic # = # protons. And since the different elements are defined by the atomic # , that means they are defined by the number of protons in their nucleus. Ok? # protons defines the element
# electrons = # protons in a neutral atom. Why? because electrons have a -1 charge and protons have a +1 and to be neutral means the charges balance. Simple enough right?
But what neutrons? Well.. they are free to vary. Atoms of the same element (ie same # protons) and different #'s of neutrons are called "isotopes". And "isotopes" is a how we determine between different #'s neutrons.
ALL atoms with 92 protons (atomic # = 92) are Uranium atoms.... ok?
Uranium atoms with 143 neutrons are called U-235 atoms
Uranium atoms with 146 neutrons are called U-238 atoms....
and yes.. 92 + 143 = 235.. and 92 + 146 = 238
still with me?
now... Uranium is naturally found in the earth. All over. And it's very very stable. U238 has a half life of 4.5 billion years. Uranium-235 has a half life of 700 million years. and of course half life is the length of time for 1/2 of the sample to undergo radioactive decay. half life = 700 million years = very stable atom.
so what is uranium used for? well, in nature, the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium in the earths crust is the reason the earth is the temperature it is. It's not just the sun. In fact, the earth radiates more heat into space per day than it absorbs from the sun. How about that?
And in nuclear bombs and power plants this happens. U-235 has a very very special property. It can readily absorb a passing neutron to become U-236. And this is a very unstable atom that undergoes fission immediately splitting into two smaller atoms and releasing the absorbed neutron + 2 more + energy. U-238, does not do that. So.. if you have exactly enough U-235 atoms arrange in precise space around a central neutron, that neutron will be absorbed by 1 atom of U-235, which will release 3. and if 2 of those neutrons escape and 1 is absorbed by another U-235 atom which fizzes and releases 3.. and 1 is absorbed and this continues you have a "chain reaction" and a "critical mass" (actually a critical mass-density) of U-235. Less mass-density = subcritical mass. higher mass-density (say you absorb all 3 neutrons continuously) then you have a supercritical mass.
nuclear power plants produce energy by a controlled critical process. It's controlled by control rods made of NON U-235 that absorb neutrons instead of allowing the U-235 to absorb them. Nuclear bombs are very brief uncontrolled supercritical masses.
now. how do w get U-235? well 99.3% of all naturally occuring uranium is U-238. 0.7% is U-235. Uranium oxide is mined from the earth. It is then converted to UF6.. a gas... uranium hexafluoride. and then run through a series of gas centrifuges. Which seperate the uranium by weight. U-238 is slightly heavier than U-235. The centrifuges aren't really that efficient so you have to have a series of them. each one removing a little bit more of the U-238. In fact.. you need several thousand centrifuges to make reactor grade material. 5% U-235 and 95% U-238. And more along to increase the % U-235 to weapons grade of 90% U-235 and 10% U-238. And there are other techniquies besides centrifugation. here's an article.
Enrichment means this... "enriched in U-235"... ie.. if you enrich uranium, you are increasing the concentration of U-235. Depeletion means you are lowering the concentration of U-235..ok? Uranium enters the enrichment facility at 99.3% U-238 / 0.7%U-235 and two steams leave. The depleted stream 99.7% U-238 / 0.3%U-235 and the enriched stream 95% U-238 / 5%U-235. And that depleted stream is used to make artillary shells because it has extremely high density.
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