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Binding Energy of an Atom

The binding energy of an atom nucleus is the energy required to split the nucleus into its constituent parts of protons and neutrons1. The following table shows the binding energy of a number of element isotopes. Note that the units are in MeV or million electron volts. The electron volt is a unit of energy (1 electron volt = 1.60217646 10-19 joules).

Element Deuterium Helium 4 Lithium 7 Beryllium 9 Iron 56 Silver 107 Iodine 127 Lead 206 Polonium 210 Uranium 235 Uranium 238

Mass of nucleons (u) 2.01594 4.03188 7.05649 9.07243 56.4491 107.862 128.027 207.671 211.703 236.908 239.934

Nuclear Mass (u) 2.01355 4.00151 7.01336 9.00999 55.9207 106.879 126.875 205.93 209.937 234.994 238

Binding Energy (MeV) 2.23 28.29 40.15 58.13 492.24 915.23 1072.53 1622.27 1645.16 1783.8 1801.63

Binding Energy per Nucleon (MeV) 1.12 7.07 5.74 6.46 8.79 8.55 8.45 7.88 7.83 7.59 7.57

The following graph links together the binding energy per nucleon of elements through the periodic table and their isotopes.

Binding Energy Per Nucleon

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0 0 50 100 150 200 250 Mass Number Binding energy per nucleon

Atomic Structure and the Periodic Table


Note the overall binding energy graph. The binding energy per nucleon rises up until the element iron (Fe) and then steadily falls. This indicates that elements up to iron tend to have more and more stable nulei and then nuclei become more and more unstable as the number of nucleons in the nucleus increases beyond iron. This suggests two basic methods of harnessing energy from nuclear reactions; fusion and fission. Fusion If we combine two elements with a low atomic mass number to produce a new element with an atomic mass number of less than iron then energy must be released. This is particularly marked in the conversion of hydrogen to helium. It is the conversion of hydrogen to helium that produces the energy from the sun, is utilised in hydrogen bombs and could become a practical source of energy in thermo-nuclear fusion reactor. Fission If we can split the atoms of an element with a high atomic mass number into elements with an atomic mass numbers that are higher than iron then energy must be released. This process ias called nuclear fission. Nuclear reactors produce energy by the fission of uranium and this is the source of power in atomic weapons.

Mass Defect and Binding Energy of a Nucleus

The mass of a nucleus is always observed to be less than the mass of its constituent nucleons. The difference between is called the mass defect. If we first think of the separate nucleons then to get them to be combined in a nucleus then energy must be released. This is explained by Einsteins famous equation E = m c2, which relates energy E and mass m, with c being the speed of light (c 3 108 m/s). Mass of proton 1.0073 amu Mass of neutron 1.0087 amu Mass of electron 0.00055 amu Speed of light (c) 3 108 m/s 1amu = 931.4 MeV A helium ( ) atom has a mass of 4.0026 amu A helium atom has two protons, two neutrons and two electrons, so the mass of the individual components is 21.0073 + 21.0087 + 20.00055 = 4.0331 amu. Hence the mass defect is 0.0305amu. Binding energy = 0.0305 931.4 = 28.4 MeV The binding energy per nucleon for helium is 28.4/4 = 7.1 MeV. See the assosciated spreadsheet2 for computing binding energy. Exercises Find the binding energy of oxygen16 (mass 15.992439amu) and uranium-234 (mass 234.040947amu).

Binding Energy Spreadsheet