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How does an Atomic Bomb Work?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 21, 2024
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An atom bomb works by initiating a nuclear chain reaction, which releases a huge amount of energy relative to conventional explosives. Per unit volume, an atom bomb may be millions or billions of times more powerful than TNT. The first atomic explosion occurred on 16 July 1945 at the Alamogordo Test Range in New Mexico, during a test called Trinity. It was developed during the top secret Manhattan Project, which was directed by General Leslie R. Groves of the US Army.

Nuclear reactions occur when neutrons are fired at closely packed atoms with heavy nuclei (uranium or plutonium isotopes). These heavy nuclei break apart into lighter nuclei when hit by a neutron, in turn generating more neutrons which bombard other nuclei, creating a chain reaction. This process is known as fission. (Another process known as fusion releases energy by fusing together nuclei rather than breaking them apart.) By breaking down the nuclei themselves rather than releasing energy through a conventional chemical reaction, atom bombs can release more than 80 terajoules of energy per kilogram (TJ/kg).

In the earliest bombs, the chain reaction was initiated simply by firing two half-spheres of high purity uranium isotope at one another in a small chamber. In updated designs, a uranium or plutonium bomb core is surrounded by high-explosive lenses designed to compress the core upon detonation. The compressed core goes critical, initiating a chain reaction that persists until many of the heavy nuclei have been broken apart.

The atom bomb and its cousin the hydrogen bomb have probably been the most powerful weapons in the world since their creation many decades ago. Large bombs can destroy entire cities. Thousands of atom bombs have been detonated, though only two have been used in warfare - both used by the US against Japan during World War II. There are seven countries that openly declare possessing nuclear weapons; the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, the People's Republic of China, India and Pakistan. The world currently possesses enough nuclear capability to make the human race go extinct many times over.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By anon353579 — On Oct 31, 2013

What is the word reaction for an atomic bomb?

By anon316808 — On Jan 30, 2013

Now if any countries try to attack with nuclear or atomic bombs. There are literally enough nuclear and atomic bombs to destroy the world.

By Ana1234 — On Dec 16, 2012

@irontoenail - Always remembering, of course, that they have been used. Japan can testament to that. So, yes, there are definitely individual heroes, but for the most part I think they haven't been used because everyone has them now. Dropping the atomic bomb isn't a way to win a war now. It means everyone dies.

By irontoenail — On Dec 16, 2012

@pleonasm - You know, for a while I was quite depressed whenever I thought about the fact that there are so many nuclear weapons stockpiled around the world.

But eventually I came to see that the fact that they haven't been used by now is fairly hopeful. I've even read stories about people during the cold war who were essentially told by (mistaken) co-workers that World War Three had started and that they had to push the button.

These people refused to do it. I know that not everyone would, but you know, there are people out there who wouldn't do it. And that's something that makes me hopeful about humanity.

By pleonasm — On Dec 15, 2012

@anon124662 - I don't think there's a definitive answer to that. It would depend on what size the bombs were, how people were protected and so forth. There are places in the mountains where people have essentially burrowed under the mountain and can live in vaults. I don't know how many bombs it would take to penetrate that kind of protection. Then you have people on little islands and so forth.

Or, possibly, the human race could become extinct from just a couple of bombs, if they set off a nuclear winter (which is when the bombs create such a large dust cloud, it won't let the sun through). If that happened and it was bad enough, all life would potentially go extinct.

I've also heard theories that a big enough atomic bomb drop in the wrong place could push the Earth out of orbit, again potentially changing the seasons enough so that everything dies.

I'm sure there is a government calculation somewhere about how many it would potentially take, but it is a complicated question.

By anon225781 — On Oct 28, 2011

At least it helped me. I'm kind of satisfied. It needs a lot of pictures for better knowledge and sure bombs are okay for projects but dangerous for practice.

By anon191969 — On Jun 30, 2011

this is probably not the best thing in the world.

By anon156513 — On Feb 27, 2011

I agree it does need pictures but the information is very well thought out.

By anon124662 — On Nov 06, 2010

If we could be extinct several times over, exactly how many do you think would be possible? I'm just asking cause "several" is pretty vague to me. Is it two? Six? Two-hundred-sixty-seven? Just my curiosity wanting to know!

By anon114321 — On Sep 28, 2010

Enough to kill us all? How wonderfully reassuring.

By anon114208 — On Sep 27, 2010

thanks. I'm doing a big project on Niels Borh (he created the atomic bomb).

By anon89065 — On Jun 08, 2010

Great info. Especially the fact that the people have enough of these bombs to the destroy the world over and over again.

By anon75076 — On Apr 05, 2010

this has helped me a lot.

By anon75073 — On Apr 05, 2010

thanks a lot.

By anon73526 — On Mar 27, 2010

I've been wondering about this for a while, thanks.

By anon72302 — On Mar 22, 2010

this site is so good! i needed extra credit in science and this totally helped.

By anon69852 — On Mar 10, 2010

thank you so much. i really needed this info. i'm doing weapons and strategy in World War II

By anon69836 — On Mar 10, 2010

Great, thanks. saved me on my project and came up in my marks!

By anon66654 — On Feb 21, 2010

Nice. thanks a lot

By anon63775 — On Feb 03, 2010

cool beans. thanks a lot.

By anon59504 — On Jan 08, 2010

thanks. now i know how it works. =)

By anon58548 — On Jan 02, 2010

This saved my life. I have a big project and the a bomb is the subject.

By anon49334 — On Oct 19, 2009

This saved my life. I have a big project and the a bomb is the subject.

By anon46182 — On Sep 23, 2009

what chemicals react together to make the bomb explode?

By anon46090 — On Sep 22, 2009

what excactly is able to split the atom?

By anon44590 — On Sep 09, 2009

I really thought the atomic bomb was just from a simple atom being split.

By anon40299 — On Aug 07, 2009

you really need pictures.

By anon35356 — On Jul 04, 2009

a simple cartoon type video would help as well as the plain info which helps understand the process easily

By gerbilkill — On Jun 13, 2009

why do people attempt these vile destruction projects anyway? i am no hippy. why have something that could kill everyone?

By anon32578 — On May 24, 2009

How is the reaction started? Is it due to the impact or is there an electronic trigger?

By druznak — On Feb 14, 2009

Thank you so much I have always wondered about this. It's crazy to think that something so terrifying can be so fundamentally simple. thanks again

By jujment699 — On Nov 05, 2008

I think this article is great and very informative. please explain how the fission process is started.

By anon20107 — On Oct 25, 2008

wow. this is exactly what i need for my project! this answers everything. thanks a lot! this website is soooooooooo handy!

By anon16609 — On Aug 10, 2008

if water exists on mars, can we use this technology by exploding nuclear bombs around mars with the intentions of creating "atmosphere"?

By anon16447 — On Aug 06, 2008

why haven't you said that berylium and polonium is the trigger that gives the neutrons needed to start the fission process?

By anon14021 — On Jun 09, 2008

But why are atomic weapons so destructive?

By boom27777777 — On May 28, 2008

This answered a lot of my questions.

By anon5838 — On Dec 07, 2007

Wonderful info.....Need pictures!!!!!!!!

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology...
Learn more
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