In nuclear engineering, a neutron moderator is a medium which reduces the velocity of fast neutrons, thereby turning them into thermal neutrons capable of sustaining a chain reaction. Commonly used moderators include deuterium (as heavy water), hydrogen (as ordinary or light water) and graphite. Beryllium has also been used in some experimental types, and hydrocarbons have been suggested as another possibility.
A good neutron moderator is a material full of atoms with light nuclei which do not easily absorb neutrons. The neutrons strike the nuclei and bounce off. In this process, some energy is transferred between the nucleus and the neutron. More energy is transferred per collision if the nucleus is lighter, see elastic collision. After sufficiently many such impacts, the velocity of the neutron will be comparable to the thermal velocities of the nuclei; this neutron is then called a thermal neutron.
In a thermal nuclear power reactor, the nucleus of a heavy fuel element such as uranium absorbs a slow-moving free neutron, becomes unstable, and then splits into two smaller atoms. The fission process for uranium atoms yields two smaller atoms, one to three fast-moving free neutrons, plus an amount of energy. Because more free neutrons are released from a uranium fission event than are required to initiate the event, the reaction can become self sustaining--a chain reaction --under controlled conditions, thus producing a tremendous amount of energy. The newly released fast neutrons must be slowed down (moderated) before they can be absorbed by the next fuel atom.
A fast reactor uses no moderator, but relies on fission produced by unmoderated fast neutrons to sustain the chain reaction.
Last updated: 06-01-2005 23:57:20