MadSci Network: Chemistry

Re: Why can't you break down an element farther down?

Area: Chemistry
Posted By: Chris Larson, Post-doc/Fellow Laboratory of Genetics
Date: Mon Apr 21 20:02:17 1997
Area of science: Chemistry
ID: 861322104.Ch

	Another manner in which to ask your question is why can't one
break down an atom, and I think that once you state the question in
that fashion you will already begin to see the answer.  As you know, 
an atom consists of a nucleus comprised of protons and neutrons and
a surrounding electron cloud containing at least one electron.
The protons and neutrons in the nucleus are held very tightly together 
in an extremely dense state by an attractive force called the nuclear 
force.  The nuclear force is very different from and much stronger than
the electrostatic force that holds the negatively charged electrons 
around the positively charged nucleus.  Although the precise nature of
the nuclear force is unknown, it is known that it is only  active over a
very short range.

	In order to break down an atom, one would have to impart enough 
energy to the atom to overcome the attractive nuclear force between 
the protons and neutrons, so the simplest answer to your question is to
say that it is so far impossible for humans to generate this much energy
in a controlled fashion in order to do this for almost all the elements.  
The only exception to that 
statement is the case of nuclear fission (such as occurs in nuclear 
power plants and nuclear bombs), but those processes utilize the most
unstable isotopes of the most unstable elements.  Nuclear fission does 
break down an element, but the vast majority of "stable" elements are 
far too stable for nuclear fission to occur.@@

	Normal chemistry involves rearranging the electron clouds around
atoms in a compound in order to change them from one organization 
of atoms/elements (one compound) into a different organization of 
atoms/elements (a different compound).  This is possible because the 
electrostatic forces between nuclei and electrons are far weaker than 
the nuclear forces within nuclei.

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