Author: Vincent Guo
Editors: Sophia Chen and Rachel Chen
Artist: Acey Li
There is a wide variety of ways to generate energy, each with its unique characteristics and applications. Some notable energy sources include water mills, solar panels, windmills, and nuclear power plants. Solar panels absorb sunlight and convert it into energy, windmills generate energy through wind-powered turbines, and water mills generate electricity using a wheel to harness the movement of flowing water. Beyond this, there is also chemical energy, which is released when the bonds between atoms are broken. Some examples of this include burning coal, fossil fuel, and wood. However, there are many downsides to chemical energy. It is a non-renewable source of energy due to the breaking of chemical bonds, resulting in the formation of a new element. The products of the broken bonds would be incapable of producing any more energy.
Although all the aforementioned types of energy sources are effective, nuclear power plants are the most commonly used to generate electricity. Nuclear power plants use an element called uranium—specifically the unstable radioisotope, Uranium-235. When uranium decays, it produces a substantial amount of energy. Fission is when an element is broken apart into an element with a smaller atomic number. The atomic number is the number of protons inside a nucleus. There are different isotopes of uranium because of variations in the number of neutrons. While protons determine what kind of element something is, neutrons help determine the mass. For example, with uranium-235 and uranium-238, the weight of the uranium is determined by the number following the dash. While they have the same amount of protons, they differ in the number of neutrons, making them both isotopes of the element uranium. Radioisotopes can be unstable when there are more neutrons than protons. During uranium decay, only half the amount is decayed, while the other half remains the same. The amount of time it takes the uranium to be halved is called its half-life. In nature, it takes uranium-235 about 700 million years to be halved. Inside a power plant, however, they use control rods to regulate the decay of uranium, allowing them to harvest the energy produced by the uranium. Water sources are used to absorb the heat produced by the decay of uranium to produce the steam that goes into turbines, generating electricity.
Although fission produces a lot of energy, there exists another type of energy source: fusion. While fission involves the splitting of an element, fusion occurs when two different elements combine to form an element with a higher atomic number. Fusion creates even more energy than fission using elements such as helium (with 2 protons) and hydrogen (with 1 proton). Despite fusion producing a significant amount of energy, we are unable to utilize fusion to get the energy because it requires massive amounts of pressure and heat to occur. The world abounds with diverse energy sources, each with unique benefits and challenges. Understanding these mechanisms is crucial for developing sustainable and efficient solutions for the ever-growing demand for energy in the world.
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