chain reaction, self-sustaining reaction that, once started, continues without further outside influence. Proper conditions for a chain reaction depend not only on various external factors, such as temperature, but also on the quantity and shape of the substance undergoing the reaction. A chain reaction can be of various types, but nuclear chain reactions are the best known. A line of dominoes falling after the first one has been pushed is an example of a mechanical chain reaction; a pile of wood burning after it has been kindled is an example of a chemical chain reaction. In the latter case each piece of wood, as it burns, must release enough heat to raise nearby pieces to the kindling point. The wood, therefore, must be piled close enough together so that not too much heat is lost to the surrounding air. The conditions for a nuclear chain reaction can be understood by analogy. In the case of the fission of a nucleus, the reaction is begun by the absorption of a slow neutron. Each fission produces two or three fast neutrons. In order to sustain a chain reaction, a sample must be large enough to slow the neutrons so that one can be captured by another nucleus and produce a second fission. The sample must also be compact to prevent neutrons from escaping. The minimum quantity of a fissionable material necessary to sustain a nuclear chain reaction is called the critical mass. In a nuclear fission bomb, a chain reaction is started by forcing together two or more samples of fissionable material, each of less than critical mass, to form one sample of supercritical mass. The number of subsequent fissions produced by a single fission is always greater than one. The total number of fissions increases rapidly (exponentially) with time. In a fission reactor, the number of subsequent fissions for each fission must be exactly one. If the rate is less, the chain reaction will stop; if greater, it will soon grow out of control. In one type of fission reactor, a combination of fuel rods and control rods is moved in or out of a solid block of moderating material to control the reaction rate. In another type of reactor, the temperature of a liquid moderator controls the reaction. See also nuclear energy; nuclear reactor.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.